scabies and conscience

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AND IN AMERICA…(1) Between 1954 and 1973 over 2,000 volunteers, all of them conscientious objectors, agreed to be infected with debilitating pathogens. In return, they were exempted from front-line warfare. The COs were nicknamed ‘the white coats’ at the Fort Detrick research centre, near Washington, where they worked as lab technicians as well as human guinea pigs. They were exposed to lethal bacteria, biological poisons and anthrax. They were then treated with various vaccines and antibiotics, to see how effective these were.

AND IN AMERICA…(2) The USA’s Institute of Medicine has been conducting a study of over 6,000 veterans who say their health has been compromised by secret tests during the Cold War era. These men include sailors who were exposed to lethal chemicals – sarin, nerve gases – sprayed in the open sea. Up to 100 have since died. Others have been shown to be at increased risk of cerebrovascular and respiratory diseases.

In 1994 the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs reported on their investigation into 50 years of military research. It said that potentially risky experiments had been carried out on people who neither knew of the tests or consented to take part in them.

SIXTY years ago an unusual project was wound up. It had been the brainchild of Dr Kenneth Mellanby, a research scientist eager to find a cure for the unpleasant contagious skin disease called scabies. With government backing he set up the Sorby Research Institute in a Sheffield suburban house (conveniently vacated because of the war) and embarked on a programme of experiments to find out how the scabies mite was transmitted.

What made the project remarkable was its participants, the volunteers who submitted to infection with scabies: these men were all conscientious objectors. It was Mellanby’s idea – COs were the only people he could think of who weren’t likely to be suddenly called up or otherwise pressed into war service, thus ruining his research programme.

The first two COs arrived in January 1941. One was a maths teacher, the other a fine arts graduate. ‘They seemed to be more or less normal people,’ Mellanby observed. They were soon joined by several dozen more COs from a wide range of professions. None of his ‘guinea pigs’, Mellanby was pleased to record, tried to ‘save’ him or convert him to pacifism.

But he was impressed by their sincerity, tolerance and humour. Though everyone knew that the scabies experiments would be of particular benefit to soldiers, among whom the disease was rife, Mellanby took care to point out that the work was worthwhile in civilians’ interest as well. ‘It is essential not only to explain scientific details to this kind of volunteer, but also to respect and be tolerant of his beliefs. I even found myself developing a “conscience” regarding the sort of experiments we should, or should not, carry out.’

One of these COs was the late Allen Jackson, who became lifelong leading member of the Peace Pledge Union. (He also met his future wife, Kathleen, at the Sorby Institute: she worked as a nurse there.) Another was Norman Proctor, a baker. Though bakery was a reserved occupation Proctor still had problems. ‘The other men refused to work with me because I was a conscientious objector, so I got the sack. Then I heard about Dr Mellanby’s experiment.’ Proctor thought taking part in it would be of service to others, and was among the first to apply.

In fact the volunteers had close contact with the military. Infected soldiers came to Sorby for treatment and left their scabies-ridden garments and bedding behind for research. Proctor remembered how ‘we had to put on soldiers’ dirty uniforms and underwear – this was hard for some volunteers. Then we had to share beds, trying to pass the scabies among us.’ But the COs wore the soldiers’ clothes ‘with good grace’, reported Mellanby. Pacifists and soldiers lived ‘in amity under one roof, with the pacifists waiting on the needs of their military guests’.

Some of the volunteers were also involved in the treatment aspect of the Institute’s work: one of their jobs was examining soldiers for scabies at an army medical centre. ‘Most people were hostile to conscientious objectors,’ said Proctor, ‘but these soldiers said they’d rather be in the army than do what we were doing.’

The volunteers were also asked to take part in other medical experiments. These included work on the effects of water deprivation, surgical shock, vitamin deficiency, and, later, malaria: ‘a substantial proportion’ of the volunteers, Mellanby reported, ‘developed clinical malaria and were unpleasantly ill, but they put up with this in a most praiseworthy manner.’ Wound-healing experiments left permanent scars.

In fact Mellanby thought the pacifists were almost too tough: they tended to carry on even when seriously ill. A colleague remarked that ‘some volunteers come to the Institute with the express wish to take part in experiments which involve risks to life and limb. They don’t want to evade military service to get a soft job. It’s their intention to do something in a way comparable to military service: work for the good of the community, associated with some dangers.’

The Institute’s work attracted public attention. There was a mention of it in Parliament: a pacifist MP was publicly reassured that the CO volunteers ‘have suffered discomfort rather than danger’, though they were ‘not free from risk of prolonged disability’. In the case of Dick Wodeman, a volunteer jailed for refusing to accept the right of a tribunal to judge his or anyone else’s conscience, some of the press came out on his side:

‘CONSCIENCE: Richard Wodeman has been inoculated with dangerous germs. He denies himself food and water as part of an experiment to aid shipwrecked sailors. He is a hero with a conscience which commands respect. Unfortunately the military authorities do not share the public’s respect for conscience. Because Wodeman objects to military service he has been sentenced to three months imprisonment. That sentence should be quashed.’

After a few weeks in prison Dick was released and returned to Sheffield to continue his volunteer work.

Mellanby hoped that conscription would continue after the war. ‘I think it probable that there will be far more people with a conscientious objection to military service in a peace-time army’ – which could mean plenty more potential volunteers for his medical researches.

In 1946 the Sorby Institute closed, but Mellanby (who had joined the army in 1943) now had his mind on the trials in Nuremberg, and in particular the American tribunal for trying medical crimes committed under the Nazi regime. It was Mellanby’s view that Nazi medical research was justified by its long-term scientific benefit, despite the human costs: the death of each victim had the indirect potential to save thousands of lives in the future. ‘If their sufferings could in any way add to medical knowledge and help others, surely this is what they would have preferred.’ He was keen to put his view across in Nuremberg, and wangled status as a reporter for the British Medical Journal to get admittance to the tribunal - where his arguments were demolished by the prosecution.

Mellanby also justified the malaria experiments that were carried out in what he called the ‘reasonably humane’ concentration camp at Dachau. One of the testimonies at Nuremberg was given by Dr Franz Blaha, a senior physician who had been seized by the Germans when they invaded Czechoslovakia. He was sent to Dachau, where he refused to operate on healthy patients and was instead assigned to the post-mortem unit. From 1942 to 1945 he carried out or supervised around 12,000 autopsies of prisoners at Dachau, including the victims of medical experiments conducted by inexpert SS medical students and doctors there. Malaria experiments were enforced on as many as 1,200 prisoners. Others were tested for the effects of air pressure and very cold water: projects rather like the subsidiary ones at Sorby, and with the same purpose – to benefit the military when in action or trying to survive hostile conditions.

In 1947 the British Medical Association gave its verdict on Nazi medical criminals: ‘Their amoral methods were the result of training and conditioning to regard science as an instrument in the hands of the state to be applied in any way desired by its rulers. It is to be assumed that initially they did not realise that ideas of those who held political power would lead to the denial of the fundamental values on which medicine is based.’

Medical research has continued to cause controversy, protest and sometimes death. And ‘volunteering’ has not always been an option. At Britain’s Ministry of Defence research establishment at Porton Down, as many as 11,000 men were exposed to mustard gas and nerve gas in experiments between 1939 and 1989. A recent report states that some of these experiments breached ethical standards; but its author, while admitting ‘serious departures’ from good practice, also thinks that there’s some excuse. ‘The work was conducted in difficult times: during the 1930s with the memory of the Great War and the threat of more war to come; during the Second World War, when the survival of the nation was at stake; and during the acute tensions of the Cold War and, later, of civil disturbance. It involved research into agents which were deadly, or agents that had to be made safe. This must not be forgotten.’

But who can seriously defend an ethical position that is so very contingent? ‘It’s a dangerous argument, placing the collective interest of science and society over the individual person,’ as one critic says. The ‘collective interest’ may in fact be that of a powerful few.

Dr Kenneth Mellanby was one of many researchers wanting freedom from interference in their projects. Such scientists certainly value the free will of volunteers who come forward to take part in experiments. Such scientists are also natural autocrats. Mellanby was convinced that in experimental work like that at Sorby ‘it is best for all concerned for one person to be in the position to make every decision that is required’. That ‘one person’ was, of course, himself.

He was also a strong advocate of experimental medicine – preferably funded by other sources than the state. For Mellanby the processes of democratising and modernising medicine posed a threat to the individual freedoms of clinical researchers. But to what extent are those ‘individual freedoms’ free from their own kind of politics, their own kind of secrecy, their own denial of ‘the fundamental values’ the BMA referred to, ‘on which medicine is based’? This, too, is a question that must repeatedly be asked – particularly nowadays when funds for clinical research so often come from corporate bodies with their own profit-seeking agendas, which can often include research of value to the military.

‘It must be borne in mind that the volunteers had come entirely of their own free will,’ Mellanby wrote in his account of the Sorby project. Both scientists and volunteers were men with a strong sense of their own rights and freedoms, including the right to assert them. Mellanby, whose rapid cure for scabies immediately ‘freed the equivalent of two divisions of soldiers from hospital’, went on urging that ‘we still need facilities by which volunteers anxious to promote medical progress can be allowed to give their services, even if there is some degree of risk to their health or even their lives.’ But ‘they must be genuine volunteers’, living ‘under a political system where civilised standards are maintained’. He pointed out that we encourage mountaineers and yachtsmen to take risks in the name of sport. ‘I am sure that many more would welcome the opportunity to take similar risks for the benefit of all mankind.’

Soldiers, of course, are exposed to far worse hazards, and under orders. They also die; their names are usually made known and acknowledged. A CO volunteer in the Sorby project died after taking part in the Vitamin C experiments, but he has no known memorial.

Margaret Melicharova
From: Peace Matters


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