Landmark Events in American Medical Ethics

Table of contents


Medical ethics is a system of moral principles that apply values and judgments to the practice of medicine. These principles apply to all who work in the healthcare field. Radiologic Technologists have an obligation to understand the theories, debates, and philosophies of medical ethics since it applies to their everyday life.

A few well-known medical ethics cases include:

Albert Kligman’s Dermatology Experiments

“Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison” is a 1998 book by Allen M. Hornblum. The book documents non-therapeutic clinical medical experiments conducted on prison inmates at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia from 1951 to 1974. These experiments were led by dermatologist Albert Kligman. The inmates were subjected to various dermatological tests, often without informed consent, raising significant ethical concerns about the exploitation and mistreatment of vulnerable populations in the name of scientific research.

Doctors’ Trial: A Landmark in Medical Ethics

Overview of the Doctors’ Trial

The Doctors’ Trial (officially United States of America v. Karl Brandt, et al.) was the first of 12 war crimes trials held by United States authorities in their occupation zone in Nuremberg, Germany, following the end of World War II. Conducted from December 1946 to August 1947, the trial focused on 23 defendants, 20 of whom were medical doctors. They were accused of participating in Nazi human experimentation and mass murder under the guise of euthanasia.

Charges and Experiments

Brutal Medical Experiments

The charges included conducting brutal medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners without their consent, which often resulted in severe suffering, injury, or death. These experiments encompassed a wide range of unethical practices, including:

  • Freezing experiments to study hypothermia
  • High-altitude experiments to investigate the limits of human survival
  • Infecting prisoners with diseases to test potential treatments

Additionally, many of the doctors were implicated in the T-4 Euthanasia Program, which aimed to exterminate individuals deemed “unfit” by the Nazi regime, including those with disabilities and mental illnesses.

Notable Absentee: Josef Mengele

The Infamous Auschwitz Physician

One notable absentee from the trial was Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz physician who evaded capture and fled to South America. Mengele was notorious for his cruel and inhumane experiments, particularly on twins and individuals with physical anomalies.

Trial Outcomes

Convictions and Sentences

The trial culminated in the conviction of 16 defendants, with seven being sentenced to death and others receiving various prison terms.

“The Doctors’ Trial was pivotal in the establishment of the Nuremberg Code, a set of ethical guidelines for human experimentation.”

The code emphasized the necessity of voluntary consent, the importance of scientifically valid research design, and the obligation to avoid unnecessary physical and mental suffering.

Ethical Standards in Medical Research

Importance of Ethical Guidelines

These cases underscore the critical importance of ethical standards in medical research. They highlight the need for:

  • Informed consent
  • Respect for human dignity
  • Stringent oversight to prevent the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable populations

For a detailed history of the Doctors’ Trial, visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Greenberg v. Miami Children’s Hospital Research Institute

Landmark Decision

Greenberg v. Miami Children’s Hospital Research Institute was a landmark decision made by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida on May 29, 2003. The case centered around whether individuals retain ownership rights to their tissue samples once they are provided to researchers for testing.

Case Background

The Plaintiffs

The plaintiffs in this case were the Greenberg family and other individuals who had provided tissue samples to the Miami Children’s Hospital Research Institute for the purpose of studying Canavan disease, a rare genetic disorder. They claimed that the researchers had commercialized the genetic material derived from these samples without their consent, seeking financial gains from patents and licensing agreements.

“The plaintiffs argued that they should have ownership rights to their tissue samples and a share of the profits generated from any resulting discoveries.”

Court Ruling

Ownership Rights

The court ruled against the plaintiffs, concluding that individuals do not retain ownership rights to their tissue samples once they have been voluntarily donated for research purposes. This decision was based on the principle that once tissue is donated, it becomes the property of the research institution, allowing researchers to use the samples for scientific advancement, including the development of commercial products, without owing any financial compensation to the donors.

Implications for Biomedical Research

Ethical Considerations

The Greenberg decision has significant implications for biomedical research and ethical considerations in medical science. It emphasizes the importance of clear communication and informed consent processes between researchers and donors. Donors should be fully aware of how their samples might be used, including the potential for commercialization.

“This case highlights the need for transparent policies regarding the ownership and use of biological materials in research.”

Ethical Guidelines

Furthermore, the ruling encourages the establishment of comprehensive ethical guidelines to govern the use of human tissues in research. Researchers and institutions are prompted to maintain high ethical standards, ensuring that the contributions of tissue donors are respected and valued.

  • Establishment of comprehensive ethical guidelines
  • High ethical standards in research
  • Respect and value for tissue donors’ contributions

Ongoing Dialogue

Building Trust

The decision underscores the need for ongoing dialogue between the scientific community and the public to foster trust and understanding in medical research practices.


Key Takeaways

In summary, Greenberg v. Miami Children’s Hospital Research Institute is a pivotal case that clarifies the legal stance on the ownership of donated tissue samples, reinforcing the necessity for robust informed consent procedures and ethical guidelines in the realm of biomedical research.

For comprehensive ethical guidelines, visit the Belmont Report by the HHS.

Henrietta Lacks: A Legacy of Ethical Reform

Henrietta Lacks had an unusual type of cancer. Cells from her tumor were cultivated and used for research without her family’s knowledge or permission. Critics have claimed that this was a form of exploitation and that the family should be compensated.

The Story of Henrietta Lacks

Unknowing Contribution to Science

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancerous tumor cells were unknowingly taken by researchers and used to create the first immortal cell line, known as HeLa cells. In 1951, without her consent, cells from her tumor were cultured by Dr. George Otto Gey at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Unlike other cells, HeLa cells could divide indefinitely, making them invaluable for medical research.

Revolutionizing Scientific Research

Impact of HeLa Cells

The HeLa cell line revolutionized scientific research due to its unique property of continuous division, which allowed for extensive experimentation. Demand for HeLa cells surged as they were distributed worldwide for research purposes. These cells have contributed to significant advancements in:

  • Cancer research
  • AIDS research
  • Effects of radiation and toxic substances
  • Gene mapping
  • Countless other scientific endeavors

Lacks Family Kept in the Dark

Discovering the Truth

Despite the monumental impact of HeLa cells on science, Henrietta Lacks and her family were kept in the dark about the use of her cells. Following her death in 1951, her husband, David Lacks, was given minimal information. The family remained unaware of the HeLa cell line’s existence until it was publicized in the media in 1976.

“The Lacks family was bewildered by the revelation that Henrietta’s cells had been taken without consent and were still being used in research 25 years after her death.”

Ethical Implications

Informed Consent and Patient Rights

The story of Henrietta Lacks raises important ethical questions about informed consent, patient rights, and the commercialization of human biological materials. Her case has prompted changes in how tissues are obtained and used in research, emphasizing the need for transparency and respect for donors.

Calls for Acknowledgment and Reform

In recognition of her contribution, there have been calls for greater acknowledgment of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy and for the establishment of ethical standards to protect the rights of individuals whose biological materials are used in research.

Henrietta Lacks’ Legacy

Influence on Bioethics

Today, Henrietta Lacks is remembered not only for her unwitting contribution to science but also as a catalyst for ethical reform in medical research. Her legacy continues to influence discussions on bioethics, patient consent, and the importance of respecting individuals’ rights in scientific endeavors.

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Read more about Henrietta Lacks and her contributions on the Johns Hopkins Medicine website.

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks

Human Radiation Experiments: Unveiling a Dark Chapter

Formation of ACHRE

Revealing Classified Records

Formed in 1994, the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) released over 1.6 million pages of classified records, revealing a dark chapter in American medical history. These records disclosed that, since the 1940s, the Atomic Energy Commission had sponsored experiments to study the effects of radiation on the human body.

Unethical Experiments on Citizens

Secret Injections

American citizens, including hospital patients who had checked in for various ailments, were secretly injected with plutonium and other radioactive materials without their knowledge or consent. Many of these unsuspecting patients believed they were receiving routine medical care, not realizing that they were part of clandestine studies. These experiments left significant amounts of radioactive material in their bodies, leading to severe and life-threatening conditions.

Widespread Ethical Violations

Impact on Vulnerable Populations

The unethical nature of these experiments extended beyond hospital patients:

  • Orphans were fed irradiated milk
  • Children were injected with radioactive substances
  • Prisoners in Washington and Oregon state prisons were also subjected to these harmful tests

Purpose Behind the Experiments

Cold War-Era Motivations

The primary purpose of these experiments was to understand how the human body metabolizes radioactive materials, a line of inquiry driven by Cold War-era defense and attack planning needs. The information gleaned from these studies was intended to benefit the Departments of Energy and Defense, enhancing their strategic capabilities in a nuclear context.

ACHRE’s Final Report

Comprehensive Account

The final report issued by the ACHRE is a comprehensive account of these human radiation experiments and is available on the Department of Energy’s website. This report not only documents the extent of the unethical practices but also serves as a critical reflection on the need for stringent ethical standards in medical research.

“It underscores the importance of informed consent, transparency, and the protection of human subjects in any scientific endeavor.”

Impact on Policies and Regulations

Legacy of the Experiments

These revelations have had a lasting impact on policies and regulations governing human experimentation. They highlight the necessity of ethical oversight and the implementation of safeguards to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable populations in scientific research.

  • Prompts for reforms to ensure that such egregious violations of human rights and medical ethics do not recur

Contemporary Discussions on Bioethics

Influence on Ethical Standards

The legacy of these human radiation experiments continues to influence contemporary discussions on bioethics, emphasizing the critical balance between scientific advancement and the ethical treatment of research subjects. It is a stark reminder of the potential consequences when ethical considerations are overshadowed by scientific and strategic ambitions.

Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment: A Grave Ethical Violation

Overview of the Study

Conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was an infamous clinical study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972. The study aimed to observe the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African American men who believed they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government. This 40-year study is widely condemned for its severe ethical violations.

Ethical Breaches

Withholding Treatment

The primary ethical breach occurred after the 1940s when penicillin was validated as an effective cure for syphilis. Despite this, the researchers intentionally withheld treatment from the participants, deceiving them about their health status and the nature of their care. The men were neither informed of their diagnosis nor provided with the necessary treatment, leading to severe health consequences, including death, for many participants.

Revelation and Impact

Whistleblower Exposure

The revelation of these unethical practices came to light in 1972, thanks to a whistleblower. This exposure led to public outrage and significant changes in U.S. law and regulations concerning the protection of participants in clinical studies.

“The Tuskegee syphilis experiment underscored the critical need for ethical standards in medical research.”

Key Safeguards Established

  • Informed Consent: Participants must be fully informed about the nature of the study, its purpose, procedures, risks, and benefits, and must voluntarily agree to participate.
  • Communication of Diagnosis: Researchers are required to inform participants of their medical conditions and provide them with accurate and timely information.
  • Accurate Reporting of Test Results: All test results must be accurately and promptly reported to the participants, ensuring transparency and trust in the research process.

Lasting Impact on Medical Ethics

Implementation of Ethical Guidelines

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment has had a lasting impact on the field of medical ethics. It highlighted the importance of respecting the rights and dignity of research participants and ensuring that they are not exploited or deceived.

  • Stricter ethical guidelines and oversight mechanisms to protect human subjects in research
  • Creation of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to review and approve the ethics of proposed studies

Lessons Learned

Cautionary Tale for Researchers

This case continues to serve as a cautionary tale in the medical and research communities, reminding us of the potential consequences of unethical behavior and the importance of maintaining high ethical standards in all scientific endeavors.

“The lessons learned from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment are essential in promoting ethical integrity and trust in the relationship between researchers and participants.”

Willowbrook State School: A Lesson in Ethical Violations

Overview of Willowbrook State School

Institution for Children with Intellectual Disabilities

Willowbrook State School was a state-supported institution for children with intellectual disabilities, located in the Willowbrook neighborhood on Staten Island in New York City. Operating from 1947 until 1987, the institution became infamous for its unethical medical practices. During its first decade, the school experienced frequent outbreaks of hepatitis, primarily hepatitis A.

Controversial Medical Study

Research by Krugman and McCollum

In response to these outbreaks, a controversial medical study was conducted at Willowbrook between the mid-1950s and the 1970s by medical researchers Saul Krugman and Robert W. McCollum. The study aimed to understand the natural history of hepatitis and to test the effectiveness of gamma globulin in preventing and treating the disease. However, the methods used in the study raised significant ethical concerns.

Unethical Practices

Deliberate Infections and Misleading Information

Krugman and McCollum deliberately infected healthy children with hepatitis to study the progression of the disease and the potential protective effects of gamma globulin. The children selected for the study were often new admissions, and parents were misled or inadequately informed about the nature of the research and the risks involved. Many parents consented to their children’s participation without fully understanding the implications, believing it was necessary for their child’s admission to the overcrowded institution.

“The Willowbrook study is now considered a blatant violation of ethical standards.”

Impact on Ethical Guidelines

Public Outcry and Institutional Review Boards (IRBs)

The public outcry following the exposure of these practices played a crucial role in the development of more stringent ethical guidelines and regulations for conducting medical research. One significant outcome was the establishment of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to oversee research involving human subjects, ensuring that studies comply with ethical principles such as informed consent, beneficence, and justice.

Legacy and Lessons Learned

Protecting Vulnerable Populations

The Willowbrook case also contributed to the creation of policies that protect the rights and well-being of individuals with intellectual disabilities. The legacy of Willowbrook State School serves as a stark reminder of the importance of ethical conduct in medical research.

  • Emphasizes the necessity of protecting vulnerable populations from exploitation
  • Ensures all research participants are treated with dignity and respect

The lessons learned from Willowbrook continue to influence contemporary bioethics, emphasizing the critical need for transparency, informed consent, and rigorous ethical oversight in all areas of scientific investigation.

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FAQs on Landmark Events in American Medical Ethics

1. What is the significance of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment in American medical ethics?

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is significant because it highlighted severe ethical violations in medical research, including the lack of informed consent and the deliberate withholding of effective treatment from African American men. The public outrage following the exposure of the experiment in 1972 led to major changes in U.S. laws and regulations to protect participants in clinical studies, emphasizing the importance of informed consent, transparency, and ethical oversight.

2. How did the Willowbrook State School experiments impact medical research ethics?

The Willowbrook State School experiments involved unethical practices where children with intellectual disabilities were deliberately infected with hepatitis to study the disease. These experiments brought to light the exploitation of vulnerable populations and the necessity for strict ethical standards. As a result, they contributed to the establishment of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to ensure that research involving human subjects adheres to ethical principles such as informed consent and minimizing harm.

3. What were the ethical concerns raised by the Henrietta Lacks case?

The case of Henrietta Lacks raised ethical concerns about the use of human tissues in research without informed consent. Cells from her tumor were taken without her knowledge and used to create the HeLa cell line, which contributed to numerous medical advancements. The lack of consent and communication with her family highlighted the need for transparency and ethical guidelines in the use of biological materials in research, leading to reforms that prioritize donor rights and informed consent.

4. What was the outcome of the Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg, and why is it important?

The Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg resulted in the conviction of 16 Nazi physicians who conducted inhumane medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners. This trial was pivotal in the development of the Nuremberg Code, a set of ethical guidelines for human experimentation that emphasize the necessity of voluntary consent, the importance of scientifically valid research, and the obligation to avoid unnecessary suffering. It laid the foundation for modern research ethics.

5. How did the controversy surrounding the book “Darkness in El Dorado” influence research ethics?

“Darkness in El Dorado” brought to light allegations of unethical research practices by geneticist James Neel and anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon among the Yanomamö people. The controversy emphasized the need for cultural sensitivity, informed consent, and the protection of vulnerable populations in research. It led to increased scrutiny and the development of stricter ethical guidelines for anthropological and genetic research, ensuring that studies do not harm participants and that communities are respected.