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But ethical oversight did not always keep pace. Keyes’ novelFlowers for Algernon, 50 years old this year, highlights how often the need for oversight is ignored or flouted.

A case in point is a 1946–53 study conducted by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and sponsored in part by food conglomerate Quaker Oats. Dozens of boys with learning difficulties at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Massachusetts, were fed cereals containing radioactive tracers to track how they absorbed iron and calcium. The boys were told only that they were joining a science club, and consent forms sent to their parents made no mention of radiation exposure. A US Department of Energy committee concluded in 1994 that it was “extremely unlikely” that the boys had been harmed by the radiation, but the disregard for their human rights is breathtaking. Other experiments, including some sanctioned by the US government, were much more egregious. Hundreds of African-American men involved in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in Alabama from 1932 to 1972 were never told that they had the disease; nor were they treated, despite the availability of penicillin from the 1940s.

The Tuskegee ‘experiment’ would never happen today, but the Massachusetts study’s more subtle transgressions — in failing to fully regard the participants as ends in themselves, rather than a means to achieve the researchers’ ends — remain relevant. It is this suppression of feeling for people and laboratory animals in the pursuit of scientific knowledge that Keyes captures in Flowers for Algernon.

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