Day 580: Science, With Just A Dash Of Evil

originally published August 2, 2013

If you’re looking for a sobering way to spend an hour (and I can see no reason why you’d want to do so on International Beer Day), have a look at the Wikipedia article about unethical human experimentation in American history. It might make you think twice about heading to the doctor to have him look at that thing on your neck which is probably nothing but it’s grown since Christmas, you’re sure of it, so even though you are positive it’s nothing you should probably get it checked anyway.

Look, sometimes a medical maybe turns into someone’s eureka moment. But to get there, we have to throw a lot of medical maybes at that mystical basket of YES before one makes it in. Sometimes those maybes are going to bounce off some skulls first. A sacrifice for science is a sacrifice for humankind.

But some of these are just messed up.

This is Dr. Loretta Bender. Loretta was a pioneer – a woman who graduated from Iowa State University’s medical school and began working at Belleville Hospital in New York in 1930. Loretta broke new ground for women, developing the Bender-Gestalt Test for identifying possible brain damage, a test that was used worldwide. She was someone a little girl could look up to as an example of someone they might want to be.

That is, unless the little girl in question happened to be hooked up to electrodes, about to be zapped to the tonsils with a gigawatt or two.

Yes, between 1940 and 1953, Dr. Bender used electroshock therapy on at least 100 (some say 200) children, ages 3 to 12. She would tell parents or curious colleagues that the therapy was a huge success, but in her journal she expressed frustration over the mental issues it appeared to be causing. Some schizophrenic kids would get the juice twice per day for twenty consecutive days. A number of her patients developed violent tendencies, and others became suicidal.

Oh, and the Bender-Gestalt Test was later proven to be terribly weak, and has since been tossed out by most every clinical psychologist.

Project Bluebird, also known as Project Artichoke, features some of the darkest goings-on in high-level government to come out of the Cold War. Say what you will about them Soviets, they were a little better at keeping the lid on stuff like this.

Beginning in 1951, the CIA was looking for the best possible way to interrogate someone and get the information they needed. That evolved into a search for the ultimate in mind control – how to get someone to do exactly what the CIA wanted them to do. They tried hypnosis, as well as inducing amnesia. They tried addicting the subject to morphine, then using withdrawal as a means of coercion. They tried marijuana – fantastic if all you want to order your subject to do is eat fajitas. LSD, cocaine, PCP, mescaline, ether… they were all spots on the theoretical dartboard, and volunteer soldiers were tossed at every one of them.

CIA director Allen Dulles complained that they didn’t have access to enough meat-fodder (that’s an evil layman’s term for ‘test subjects’) to really do it right. Project Bluebird/Artichoke became Project MKULTRA, another $25 million was plunked into the project’s checking account, and shit was on. Over 7000 military personnel – and keep in mind, these are the good people who either volunteered to serve their country or didn’t flee the draft – were dosed with LSD. More than a thousand suffered from fallout ranging from depression to epilepsy.

Project MKULTRA employed tortuous methods that would make Jack Bauer cringe. In one study (known as Project Midnight Climax… no, seriously), the CIA employed San Francisco, Marin and New York prostitutes to bring potential customers back to safe houses, where they would be plied with LSD without their knowledge while CIA spooks observed them from behind one-way glass.

Many of these experiments featured this man, Sydney Gottlieb, in the driver’s seat. Gottlieb was the go-to science guy when someone in the CIA wanted to do something horrific, but with a handy white-coat twist. He was like James Bond’s Q, but with an experimental slant that seemed closer to the thought processes of a 60’s-era Bond villain. They called him the Black Sorcerer, or the Dirty Trickster. In 1960, when the CIA wanted Iraqi General Abdul Karim Qassim on the no-longer-breathing list, Gottlieb tried to have the general’s handkerchief contaminated with botulism.

In the summer of 1960, Gottlieb flew to the Congo with a vial of poison, aiming to slip a little into the toothpaste of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Unfortunately a military coup got to Lumumba first. Gottlieb was also all over the drafting table when it came to ideas for dispatching Fidel Castro into the afterlife. He suggested spraying Castro’s TV studio with LSD, or dropping some thallium in his shoes so that his beard (the source of Castro’s superpowers) would fall out. Maybe a poisoned cigar. Or a poisoned wetsuit. A poisonous fountain pen? Hey – an exploding conch shell! No one will see that coming!

Methinks Dr. Gottlieb spent a little too much time playing with that LSD.

In 1950, some doctors at the Cleveland City Hospital tried injecting patients with spinal anesthesia, then crammed needles into their jugular veins and brachial arteries to extract ludicrous amounts of blood. Then, after paralysis and/or fainting set in, they measured the patients’ blood pressure. This was done repeatedly on the same individuals. Not sure what hypothesis was at stake for this one – maybe these guys were just assholes.

Dr. Edward Cohn injected 64 Massachusetts inmates with cow’s blood in 1942. Again, not sure why – the Navy simply asked him to.

Project Shipboard Hazard And Defense (SHAD) spent much of the 1960’s trying to figure out how vulnerable US warships were to chemical or biological weapons attacks. To do this, they simply attacked US warships with chemical and biological weapons. Without telling anyone on board, or giving them protective clothing. They dropped some VX nerve gas, some Sarin, some Soman (both officially WMDs), some Francisella tularensis (which unleashes a delightful infectious disease known as rabbit fever), and much more. Forty-six tests were conducted – literally thousands of servicemen were splashed with the government’s experimental paintbrush.

I understand that science is a process, and that experimentation is the only way to find out if something works, be it a cure or a weapon. But the thought of all the lives that were altered or ended by a test that didn’t quite work out as planned… well, it’s enough to make a guy a little queasy.

Just not go-to-the-doctor queasy. No way.

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