Against Their Will

The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

By Allen M. Hornblum, Judith L. Newman, and Gregory J. Dober

Palgrave Macmillan. 266 pp. $27

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Reviewed by Steve Weinberg

The subtitle of Against Their Will warns readers that an important but grim experience is about to commence.

The book is endlessly shocking and depressing, as the three authors offer deep documentation about children serving as human guinea pigs for all sorts of harmful medical research.

Just as the children evoke pity, the numerous villains of the book evoke anger, especially given their highly educated backgrounds as medical doctors and Ph.D. science researchers. Almost every experimenter named by the authors ought to have served time in prison for torturing helpless fellow humans. Instead, the experimenters won research grants and often received accolades as heroes trying to combat a variety of diseases. In most instances, they seemed to be well-intentioned. But they sure lacked a moral compass.

Allen M. Hornblum is a prolific author known around Pennsylvania especially as a prison reformer. Judith L. Newman teaches human development at the Abington campus of Pennsylvania State University. Gregory J. Dober writes primarily about medical issues, with Prison Legal News serving as an outlet. They have been collecting information about medical experiments on the helpless for a long, long time.

Their exposé is more historical than contemporary. That is because most of the dreadful practices they document gradually halted as government regulators and scientists with consciences blew the whistle on the book's various villains. Frequently, the authors take readers back to the 19th century to aid understanding of how such horrific experiments evolved. Mostly, though, the book is set during the Cold War, as the subtitle suggests. The researchers featured most prominently conducted the bulk of their experiments during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

The evidence is set out chronologically for a while. Then the authors switch to a subject-matter approach, documenting research on vulnerable humans in the realms of vaccines meant to fight scourges such as polio; dietary variations meant to determine how various deprivations affect teeth and skin as well as overall health; radiation exposure; brain manipulations through surgeries such as lobotomies; intense psychological interventions that spilled over into brainwashing; and female reproduction research not only on women but also on children in their wombs.

Given the Pennsylvania orientation of the authors, it is no surprise that some of the horror stories are set inside mental hospitals, orphanages, and other institutions for the vulnerable throughout the state. One searing case study involves the Pennhurst School in Chester County. Founded during the opening decade of the 20th century as a warehouse for the "feebleminded," by the 1940s it had evolved into a hunting ground for researchers seeking "volunteers" to be injected with dangerous substances related to the search for a hepatitis cure. Nobody asked the study subjects, mostly ages 10 through 15, for their permission, and nobody compensated the subjects for their suffering.

One of the few heroines in the book is Pat Clapp, who in 1973 was serving as president of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children. The authors devote a chapter to Clapp's campaign to halt cruel vaccine research on helpless children after hearing from a distraught parent about what was occurring at Hamburg, a residential institution for the retarded located near Reading.

Against Their Will is not the first book to document the horrors, and the authors give credit where credit is due. There is something fresh about their take on the subject, though. In their own words, previous books have not combined in the same manner "a pointed and frank conversation about the motivating factors that allowed so many physicians and researchers to subscribe to a system and professional ethic that routinely placed infants and children in harm's way. Or why society seemed indifferent to the practice, especially when it was occurring in the one nation that felt it necessary to punish the Nazi doctors for their many ethical transgressions and brutal medical experiments. The ethically toxic alchemy of the eugenics movement, World War II, and the threat of Communism during the Cold War played a significant part in allowing some of our best and brightest to cavalierly exploit some of our youngest and those most deserving of protection. An accurate accounting and discussion of this sad phenomenon is long overdue."

The accounting is no longer overdue, thanks to the justified moral outrage and impressive information-gathering efforts of these three authors.