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Photo: Massachusetts General Hospital

A scathing indictment of the ethics of medical research, published 50 years ago today, sparked a firestorm of controversy in the medical community and led to an overhaul of the rules of research involving humans. The fact that it was written by a physician who led some iffy experiments with LSD makes the message more nuanced, but no less compelling.

The report, “Ethics and Clinical Research” — sometimes called Beecher’s bombshell — appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine on June 16, 1966. Its author, Dr. Henry Knowles Beecher, an acclaimed professor of anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School and department chair at Massachusetts General Hospital, accused scientists at some of the nation’s top medical schools, hospitals, and other research institutions of unethical research that could have, and sometimes did, harm research subjects, many of whom had no knowledge they were even part of a study.

Although he didn’t name names, Beecher described 22 ethically corrupt experiments. In one study, researchers withheld penicillin from more than 500 men with strep throat infections in order to test a less-effective treatment. About 5 percent of them developed strep-related rheumatic fever, which can cause severe heart damage. In another of Beecher’s examples, living cancer cells were injected into 22 participants in a study of cancer immunity. In neither case were the participants informed about the specifics of the study.

I am fascinated by this paper for two reasons: One is that Beecher himself had played loose with the ethics of informed consent in his top-secret search for a “truth serum” for the US Army. The other is that the upshot of the report — greater oversight of clinical trials by outsiders — is the antithesis of what Beecher would have wanted.

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