Male Prisoners Used in Wartime U.S. Medical Experiments

face of a prisoner

Beginning in 1944, doctors at the University of Chicago used male civilian prisoners as human subjects for medical experiments with malaria treatments. U.S. men fighting World War II in the Pacific were suffering badly from malaria. The experiments on prisoners were directed toward helping U.S. soldiers.

Prisoners at the Illinois State Penitentiary consented to participate in the malaria experiments. The men consented by signing a form by which they assumed all risks from the experiments and absolved everyone else — University of Chicago and Illinois State Penitentiary personnel, the government of Illinois and “every other official” — of any responsibility.^ The malaria experiments involved considerable suffering and health risks to the men and did not offer the possibility of any health benefits to them. Concerns about abuses in consensual testing of drugs on prisoners led to stringent restrictions on the practice in the mid-1970s.^

The sex of the prisoners and soldiers relating through the malaria experiments was important and clearly presented publicly. In a book about his time in prison and his participation in the malaria experiments, one ex-prisoner wrote:

our bodies would be the battlefied in a not unimportant war. Shaking the bed with your chills, saturating the mattress with the sweat of a 107° temperature weren’t nearly so dramatic as shouldering a tommy gun, but maybe they were just about as important in the long run. … And the time we lost from our jobs while in bed with malaria wasn’t an economic loss to anyone.

Fighting for your country and providing money for your family was the sadly constricted way that many twentieth-century men understood the value of their lives. Reporting on the malaria experiments, the U.S. National Research Council in 1945 declared:

Instead of being deterred by {the significant health risks of the experiments}, many of the volunteers actually invite danger, in order to share in some measure what their friends and relatives are experiencing on the various battlefronts. Upon learning that, through their cooperation, thousands of GI’s might be spared the ravages of the tropical malady, the prisoners respond immediately and enthusiastically.

Leading news sources of that time made clear that the prisoners and the soldiers were men: “our fighting men exposed to malaria,” “men who have been imprisoned as enemies of society are now helping science fight another enemy of society.”^

The real position of men is now invisible. In a recent scholarly article on the malaria experiments, a sophisticated, critical scholar who has achieved a fine career in academy universalizes men into men and women:

my purpose here is … to question how it is, exactly, that prisoner experimentation would have seemed (at least at the outset) so much more outrageous than commanding men and women in uniform to sacrifice their bodies for their country.

what is truly remarkable about the Stateville malaria project is also that we commanded other young men to die for us, that we asked other men and women to sacrifice their lives for our country.^

Except in the accounts of those who play with extraordinary verbal freedom, men have vastly predominated historically among those who have been commanded to die for their country. Men have also vastly predominated among prisoners. These two facets of the disposal of men are related. Male scholars have been largely unable to articulate that relation. Female scholars have been largely uninterested in it.

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