Scientific sacrifice


From experiments on prisoners to instilling fear into a nine-month-old child, Alan Coughlan investigates the darker side of scientific endeavour.

“Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing”. Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden says these words in Fight Club, A movie that extols the virtues of self-sacrifice and nihilism in order to free oneself to do anything.

The anecdote being spoken of was of an ancient people washing clothes in a river.

The idea was that through the suffering of victims of human sacrifice, certain parts of a river became enriched with lye (a strong alkaline solution used for washing) Clothes became cleaner when washed here more than others. In this case, the first soap came from the bodies of tortured victims.

Can it be true that we owe aspects of our lifestyles to the pain and suffering of those that came before us? The principles of science and medicine are to build on reputable and respectable evidence-based research.

It may not surprise the average person that large multi-national drugs companies have over time been embroiled in lawsuits for malpractice and unethically falsifying research. However, it may shock some to discover how some of our modern conveniences came to be. Specifically those that have helped to make the world and even space a smaller place.

In the Dachau concentration camp, Doctors from the German air force carried out experiments on prisoners. They used a low-pressure chamber to test the maximum altitude at which a human could survive. This would allow them to know at what height one of their pilots could still bail out of a damaged airplane operate a parachute and survive. Prisoners were also subjected to freezing temperatures during attempts to find effective treatments for hypothermia. Not surprisingly, many of the subjects in these experiments died painful deaths.

Wernher Von Braun who as director of the Marshall Space Flight Centre oversaw the design of the Saturn V rocket which put man on the moon. Von Braun was a rocket scientist active in Nazi Germany, directly involved in the design of the V2 rocket that was used to great success against Britain during World War Two.

As a member of the air force, he would have visited the Dachau concentration camp and no doubt knew of what went on there. Special mission V2 was designed specifically to obtain V2 rocket parts and plans and represented the world’s first ballistic missile and was sought vehemently by the allied forces.

Operation Paperclip was a US endeavour to recruit German scientists and to deny access specifically to the USSR. At the planning stage, President Truman specified that no persons that had been active Nazi party members would be eligible. If this had been implemented, it would have made most of the scientists identified for the operation, including Von Braun, ineligible.

It has been speculated that what he brought to the table research wise, while grotesque, answered all the questions needed about human endurance at high altitudes. It could be argued that modern aviation owes its very existence to some of the more despicable practices of science in the past.

Von Braun has become quite a big name amongst conspiracy theorists and this is not helped by the fact that in a recent batch of declassified documents, his file was conspicuously empty. It would be easy to infer from this that he was either privy to grisly so-called medical research data or worse, had taken part in it.

What is known today about the effects of freezing on the human body is based almost exclusively on the Nazi hypothermia experiments. Under the rules of medical trials in place today, no sane person under informed consent would enter into such an experiment where death is highly likely.

In the case of the Nazi experiments, surviving them was of no consequence as all subjects were executed. With this in mind, the question must be asked as to what should be done with this data? Once such atrocious experiments have been carried out, can any physician under Hippocratic oath study them?

It is undeniable that those experimented on died painful deaths solely for the fact that these scientists could treat them as they pleased. However, there are those who would argue that by ignoring any data produced the subject’s deaths become all the more pointless. However, general consensus in the scientific community is that these experiments should be ignored as they represent only a dark time in history and could never have been carried out in a truly scientific manner.

Another example occurred in the 1920s when John Watson investigated whether or not fear is a learned response or innate. A nine-month-old baby named Albert was selected for the experiment and a number of behavioural experiments were performed on him. He was shown at various points a white rat, a dog, monkey, masks, cotton wool and burning newspaper. He showed no fear to any item.

The conditioning of Albert did not begin until he was eleven months old. He would be placed on a mattress and then a white laboratory rat would be introduced which Albert would be permitted to play with. Again, he showed no fear of the animal.

After several sessions, Watson then used a steel bar and struck it loudly with a hammer every time the boy touched the rat. This, of course, distressed Albert and taught him a conditioned fear. Whenever the rat was subsequently introduced, the child became distressed. He would cry and try to get away from the animal.

Whatever was learned from this experiment, it’s that cruelty is manifest. The child was taken away a month before the trial ended and thus no reconditioning or desensitising was performed.

Scant details exist about Albert’s life but it seems that he died while still a child and no information about any lasting harmful effects from the experiment are known. When one reads about such practices, the horrible lengths people will go to when permitted are highly shocking.

In today’s world, there exists a code of ethics in scientific practice to prevent undue cruelty and distress. Informed consent allows subjects to know exactly what they are getting in for when they sign up to a trial.

Tyler Durden’s speech argues that without sacrifice there would be no progress and behind this development will always be the blood of innocents. No regard is shown for any lasting effects of experimentation and what can pass for scientific practice is often sadistic cruelty under masquerade.

History shows us that if a group of people is presented as inferior, then there are those who are more than willing to take advantage of this. That might be the greatest lesson to take from these cases.