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Issues in Dermatology
April 1999

Ethical Lapses in Dermatologic "Research"

Author Affiliations


Arch Dermatol. 1999;135(4):383-385. doi:10.1001/archderm.135.4.383

A number of months ago in the ARCHIVES, Dr Philip C. Anderson, in a discussion of the state of contemporary medical ethics, urged his colleagues, "We must truly be moral."1 In an effort "to meet a higher standard of reliability and morality," Dr Anderson counseled dermatologists to "look at our failures even more closely than . . . our successes." As we look back on this century, it is obvious that a number of vulnerable populations have been subjected to abuse by physicians and scientists engaged in research. For example, from the 1930s to the 1970s, physicians of the US Public Health Department used hundreds of black sharecroppers in Macon County, Alabama, for a study of syphilis in which the syphilitics among them went untreated.2 In 1963, cancer researchers used 2 dozen senile hospital patients for studies of immunity, (personal interview with Dr Chester Southam, June, 1998) and in 1946, atomic scientists used nearly 2 dozen unwitting hospital patients for experiments that used plutonium to explore the impact of radioactivity on humans.3 Experiments by American doctors on vulnerable subjects were used as a defense by Nazi doctors on trial at Nuremberg in 1947.4 How could Americans sit in judgment of German physicians, they wanted to know, when physicians in the United States had for years been using prisoners for experiments, some of which were potentially lethal?

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