Monday, August 31, 2015

Caitlin Dickerson's "Secret World War II Chemical Experiments Tested Troops By Race"

NPR did a series of stories exposing research that the U.S. government conducted during WWII. This research exposed American soldiers to mustard gas for research purposes. In some instances, the government targeted soldiers of color, believing that they had tougher/different skin that would make them more resistant to this form of chemical warfare.

Here is the whole series of stories (from the original research, exposed via Freedom of Information Act, to NPR working to find the effected veterans).

None of the soldiers ever received any special dispensation or medical care due to their involvement. Participants were not given the choice to discontinue participation without prejudice, as recalled below by one of the surviving veterans:

"We weren't told what it was," says Charlie Cavell, who was 19 when he volunteered for the program in exchange for two weeks' vacation. "Until we actually got into the process of being in that room and realized, wait a minute, we can't get out of here." 
Cavell and 11 other volunteers were locked inside a gas chamber with mustard gas piping inside. Blocks of ice sat on shelves overhead with fans blowing across them to increase the humidity in the room, which intensified mustard gas's effects on the body. After an hour, the officer released six of the men back to their barracks. Cavell and five others were told to stay put. 
Inside the chamber, Cavell's skin started to turn red and burn in the places where he sweat the most: between his legs, behind his neck and under his arms. Blisters that eventually increased to the size of half dollar coins started to grow in the same places. At the end of the second hour, the officer ordered Cavell back to his barracks and to continue wearing his gas-saturated uniform. 
Cavell, now 88 years old, says the officer threatened him and the other test subjects: If they told anyone about their knowledge or participation in the experiments, they would receive a dishonorable discharge and be sent to military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. 
"They put the fear of God in just a bunch of young kids," he says.

This story illustrates why we need Institutional Review Boards. For me, at least, this story hits home because we aren't teaching our students about the horrors Nazi experimentation. Instead, we're talking about terribly racist research that the U.S. government conducted on The Greatest Generation during WWII.


Needless to say, this is a good example for a discussion about research ethics. In particular, I think this opens up discussion of whether or not informed consent can really be obtained from active duty military personnel, the importance of outside approval of research that is this potentially dangerous, and the importance of the informed consent.

Here is a link to the original study.

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