In 1932, the United States Public Health Service alerted hundreds of poor black men in Macon County, Ala., to a new treatment for "bad blood," a term locals used to refer to a wide range of sexually transmitted diseases. The "special treatment," the government said, would be offered by doctors at the Tuskegee Institute, the Alabama college founded by Booker T. Washington; the men would be treated for free as long as they allowed doctors to observe their condition.
Almost 400 men responded, and when they arrived at Tuskegee, doctors from around the country descended on the school to monitor them. But the men who checked in to Tuskegee for salvation from bad blood were not offered any new medicine there. Instead, doctors administered aspirin and an "iron tonic" placebo and, over four decades of annual visits, watched the men descend to grisly deaths from a well-known disease -- syphilis -- that the government knew could easily and effectively be treated with penicillin.
Since 1972, when details of the program were first uncovered in the press, the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male," as the government called it, has come to stand as a monument for all that can go wrong in science -- a horror committed not only by a racist government but also by doctors sworn to the highest ethical conduct. The Tuskegee study might seem to most of us like an aberration, a product of a place and time particularly lacking in ethics. The scientists who organized the program may have been mad, but surely all scientists aren't so, you might think.
While that's a sensible way to look at the world, Andrew Goliszek, a biologist at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, cautions that it's not always wise to give science the benefit of the doubt. In his new book, "In the Name of Science: A History of Secret Programs, Medical Research, and Human Experimentation," Goliszek recounts dozens of unethical and sometimes ghastly experiments conducted on humans, many much worse than what occurred at Tuskegee. Some of these -- like the crimes of Dr. Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death" who presided over prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp -- are infamous; others, such as the CIA's experiments with LSD, the Defense Department's Cold War-era radiological experiments on unsuspecting soldiers or the Japanese government's germ-warfare program of World War II, have been nearly forgotten by history.
Goliszek also documents a history of misconduct and coverups by scientists, a history that gives the lie, he says, to the notion that scientists live monastic lives of experimentation and verification, lives ruled by an objective desire to discover the truth, to first do no harm. This is Goliszek's thesis; he wants to knock science off its pedestal. Scientists, he tells us, are not above corruption, and in a society like ours that looks to science as the ultimate arbiter of truth, it's vital that we realize this. "Those unfamiliar with science probably assume that the profession is filled with intellectuals doing honest and worthwhile research and who would never compromise their principles," he writes. "In many cases, that's absolutely true; but in some cases, the scientists doing research are bordering on insane." Goliszek believes that these scientists have made the past century "one of the darkest in scientific history."
Unfortunately, Goliszek, whose previous works include a medical school admissions guide and a stress-management self-help book, is an aggravatingly overheated writer, and as an investigator he can be lazy, too often relying on dubious sources and presenting only one side of the story. He is also a poor analyst of the facts he presents: he fails to explore what it means for science, and for the rest of us, that scientists so often fall from grace.
If it's true that researchers are easily influenced by their governments or their corporate benefactors, should we trust them? And if we don't trust scientists, what then? When your doctor prescribes a cholesterol-lowering statin drug, or when your friend the climate researcher warns that your SUV will be the ruin of the planet, do you heed their advice? Or do you ignore them, figuring they're probably bought and paid for by special interests?
Goliszek addresses none of these questions. Instead, he skips from scientific disgrace to scientific disgrace with the glee of a freak-show emcee, punctuating his discoveries with satirical asides and a barrage of exclamation marks. The dedicated reader will find refuge in Goliszek's bibliography, which is the most thorough part of his book; there you'll find, for example, such gems as "Bad Blood," New York Times reporter James Jones' exhaustive history of the Tuskegee experiments, which provides a far more nuanced picture of the program than the half-dozen pages Goliszek devotes to the affair.
Goliszek's theatrics notwithstanding, "In the Name of Science" does provide a useful map to the low points in the history of science, a map whose landmarks ought to be better remembered by scientists and by a culture that dotes on science.
On Nov. 18, 1953, for instance, CIA doctors who believed that LSD would be a handy drug for humiliating world leaders decided to test the substance on unsuspecting guests at a social gathering of government scientists taking place in Deep Creek Lane, Md. The doctors poured 70 micrograms of LSD into a bottle of brandy set out at the party. "Twenty minutes later," Goliszek writes, the group became "increasingly boisterous," and one guest, Frank Olson, a U.S. Army civilian employee, "felt especially edgy." Olson, in other words, had a bad trip, and over the next few days, his condition worsened. He shuttled between doctors in New York and Washington, depressed and deathly afraid, he told government doctors, to face his family. At 2:30 a.m. one morning, weeks after the party, Olson leaped out of a 10th-floor window at the Statler Hotel in Manhattan, "his secret dying with him until it was eventually uncovered decades later," Goliszek writes.
"In the Name of Science" brims with such accounts of death by secret illness, and lives lived in the grip of mysterious ailments caused by secret experimentation. Soldiers are particularly vulnerable to the horrors of science; they are assaulted not only by enemy forces, but also by their own governments. Goliszek tells of the Army's postwar radiological experiments on its soldiers, including a chilling account of men who were instructed to march into the plume of a nuclear detonation in the Utah desert.
"Like a wave of green ants, the soldiers emerged slowly onto the hot desert and moved in unison toward the cloud," he writes. "Those blinded or dazed by the fireball were left behind. Others were selected for psychological examination to determine the effects of stress and the emotional impact of a nuclear detonation. The remaining troops conducted field exercises, maneuvering across the desert and through what looked like a brown and gray dust storm. Above them, a B-17 flew directly into the cloud, tracking its movement and analyzing how much was diffusing and how much was actually falling to the ground."
What did the military expect to learn from these experiments, and what did it learn? Goliszek doesn't say, which highlights another frustration the reader encounters in his book. It would be revealing to see how the scientists who conducted experiments on humans justified the research to themselves. Were they indeed, as Goliszek's title implies, interested only in furthering scientific knowledge, and willing to do whatever was required to sate their curiosity? And did it turn out that, despite the grief their research produced, science was well-served by their experiments? Did they feel that what they did was, in other words, somehow worth it?
The answers to these remain, like much in this book, a mystery. One would like to believe, however, that the scientists documented here harbored no illusions that they were acting in the best tradition of their profession, and that most scientists know the difference between working in the name of science and working, as many here did, in the interest of some lesser goal -- the perceived national interest, say, or the bottom line.
Goliszek would like us to believe otherwise. In the future, scientists will have unprecedented powers to steer us wrong, and we would do well to be skeptical about their claims, he says. We need to realize, he writes, "that we're merely at the water's edge when it comes to scientific advances; and while there's an entire ocean of new discoveries waiting to be uncovered, we're only now beginning to feel the salt spray in the air." While Goliszek doesn't quite make the case that we should indict the entire profession, the note of caution he strikes is worth hearing.