We've talked about immoral psychological experiments so many times it's starting to feel like we should just lock the doors on all the psychiatric hospital employee break rooms and let everyone else run to safety. Unfortunately, it seems that we're in no danger of running out of sinister tales where esteemed doctors used the minds of their mentally fragile wards like chew toys to throw to the mad dog of scientific progress. For example ...
There are evil experiments and then there are diabolical experiments. The difference often lies in the level of irony, where the diabolically evil have to corrupt something sweet and innocent before they can get their rocks off. So when you, as a scientist, are force-feeding regressive mental patients candy until the teeth rot out of their mouths, you're definitely doing the devil's work.
Sweden has a sweet tooth. The Scandinavian country has the highest per capita consumption of candy in the world. And back in the 1930s, that meant that Swedish three-year-olds had cavities in 83% of their teeth. But people back then hadn't fully put two and two together about the causes of tooth decay (some blamed it on masturbation, as they were wont to do). So in the forties, the Swedish national medical board set out to find out if sweets really do rot your teeth. And for that, the researchers needed test subjects who could be monitored constantly, would follow a specific diet without exemption and wouldn't protest if their teeth fell out. And whaddayaknow, the mental patients under the care of the Swedish government ticked all of those boxes.
In 1946, researchers descended on Vipeholm Institute where the government would lock away all of its "uneducable" psychiatric patients, the ones so far gone they needed help getting dressed and had to be tied to their beds. What followed was an experiment so immoral it would send tingles down a Nazi doctor's dick. With financial backing from the sugar industry (the researchers needed their candy to be as cheap as the lives of their subjects), the study began force-feeding 660 patients tons of sugar to cause maximum dental damage, either via a sugar solution, sugar bread or a 'super' caramel candy engineered to stick to the teeth as long as possible.
The results were as rotten as the victims' teeth. After two grueling years of untreated cavities, dental abscesses and outright destroying all of the teeth of 50 subjects, the researchers finally concluded that, yup, sugar's pretty bad for your chompers. But the results of the Vipeholm experiments weren't published until 1957; not because the researchers feared being thrown in jail but because their Big Sugar paymasters weren't happy with the results. And even when the study and its horrific practices were made public, the Swedes cared more about having to give up their sweets than that 660 of their most vulnerable country folk had given up their human rights.
With such definitive and scary results, Sweden did launch a massive public health campaign encouraging kids to brush their teeth and eat candy with moderation. This then gave way to the longstanding Swedish tradition of lordagsgodis or "Saturday candy" where in honor of/ as the biggest "fuck you" ever to the poor toothless wretches, Swedes now eat lots of candy only once a week.
On March 28, 1991, former student Tony Lamadrid stood atop the Boelter Hall of the University of California, Los Angeles. The 21-year-old was a diagnosed schizophrenic who was off his meds and a known danger to himself. Mere days before, his caseworker had asked him to check himself back into the UCLA Medical Center and tell the staff he was suicidal. But who can blame him for not taking her seriously? After all, it was in that very hospital that they had first taken away his medication. Just to see what would happen next.
Seconds later, he was dead on the pavement.
Like a hundred other schizophrenic sufferers, Lamadrid had taken part in a legendary UCLA study called "Developmental Processes in Schizophrenic Disorders." Directed by psychologist Keith H. Nuechterlein and psychiatrist Michael Gitlin, the experiment's mission was to gain "information about the medication, its effects on [the patients], on others and on the way the brain works" by taking said patients completely off their anti-schizophrenia meds. The study's diagnosed schizophrenics were first given placebos for 12 weeks. Then, the ones that weren't having an absolutely terrible time would go on for the next 18 months with no medication at all. At that point, that wasn't a lot of them.
But Nuechterlein and Gitlin had prepared for the reality that many of their test subjects would start experiencing dangerous "hallucinations, unusual thought content, bizarreness, self-neglect, hostility, depressive mood and suicidality." But what they hadn't done was prepare their patients for that same (lack of) reality, only vaguely warning them that the study could make their mental state "worse," an unsatisfactory word to describe: "We're going to let a Lovecraftian horror story be written by and inside your own fragile mind." And it got real bad real fast. One patient, Gregory Aller, had severe hallucinations about space aliens, government agents and plotted to kill his parents because he thought they were possessed by the devil. Another, Elizabeth de Balogh, thought she was being hunted by sentient musical notes.
When the parents of Aller and the late Lamadrid eventually spoke up, a three-year-long federal investigation was launched into the experiment. It concluded that Nuechterlein and Gitlin had violated the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and code of conduct by not properly informing their subjects of the repercussions. That act had voided their subjects' signing of the experiment's "informed consent" form. However, the same investigation also confirmed that the study itself was still "ethical," which again is an unsatisfactory word to use in a case where patients started jumping off buildings or screamed about being chased by music.
Have you ever been in that mood where you go: "To hell with it, I'm going to pretend to have schizophrenia, get admitted into a mental hospital and see what happens next?" No? Then, you would've been of no use to Dr. David Rosenhan, a man who tried to revolutionize the field of psychoanalysis with the same strategy of a fourth-grader feigning a fever to get out of going to school.
From 1969 to 1972, a psychiatrist, a graduate student, a housewife, a painter, a pediatrician and three psychologists walked into twelve psychiatric institutions and pretended to be schizophrenic. That's not the set-up to the most labored joke in history, but the experiment launched by David Rosenhan, a social psychologist at Stanford University and, depending on which of his colleagues you talked to, either a genius or "a bullshitter." Using his genius and/or bullshitting charm, Rosenhan managed to convince eight others to walk into hospitals and claim to be hearing voices until they managed to convince a psychiatrist to have them committed. By doing so, Rosenhan would go on to debunk the contemporary methodology of assessing people's sanity -- if you pretend that trying to trick your way into an insane asylum is something a truly sane person would ever do.
Of course, before Rosenhan could publish his findings, he and his subjects needed to get out of the loony bin first. And it turns out you can't just walk out of a mental ward as a diagnosed schizophrenic just because you say it was all an elaborate prank. Rosenhan and his acolytes were trapped, some for up to 52 days. Unlike the staff, actual patients did have their suspicions. The study noted that 35 certified patients expressed doubts about these "pseudopatients" being actually ill. Of course, none of the staff ever listened to them because if you don't take a fake mentally unstable person at their word, why would you a real one?
The experiment helped Rosenhan show that even trained professionals couldn't tell they were being lied to by the patients. After the experiment, he wrote: "It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals." Of course, the study, "On Being Sane in Insane Places", caused great controversy and not merely because of all the criticism regarding the study's legitimacy. On the one hand, it forced doctors to reevaluate a methodology that was supposedly lacking. On the other hand, it completely undermined people's confidence in the field of psychiatry, so much so that lawyers still use it to discredit psychiatric evaluations of criminals. And if that fails, those unstable scoundrels can always get out by saying there were just pretending for a study.
Wendell Jonhson wasn't the class clown as much as he was the class mime. Suffering from a stutter so severe it often left him speechless, a young Johnson avoided being a school pariah by pulling tricks and pranks on other kids. And when he decided to dedicate his life in discovering the root cause of stuttering, all that hoodwinking came to great use as he would spend some his career gaslighting children for the greater good.
In the 1920s, Johnson went to the University of Ohio, the world's most famous center for stuttering research, to study in the new field of speech pathology. Back then, it was believed that speech impediments like stuttering were physiological, caused by mixed-up brain signals. Grad students, almost all stutterers themselves, would encourage each other to do crazy neurological experiments like putting their dominant arms into casts or firing guns near each other at random to confuse the brain into becoming ... less confused.
But Johnson developed another theory. According to him, stuttering was purely psychological, a result of chronic insecurity. After all, he had been perfectly eloquent until, during the first grade, a rude teacher remarked that he was developing a light stutter. And Johnson was truly convinced it was his and his parents' worrying and obsessing over this news that was the reason he started showing all the signs of a stutterer (and not, you know, because of the stutter). And if stuttering was behavior he could teach himself, he figured the only way to prove this theory is to see if he inflict it onto others as well.
If that sounds like a supervillain origin story, you're correct. In 1939, Professor Johnson instructed grad student Mary Tudor to start an experiment that would later be dubbed "the Monster Study." At the nearby Iowa Soldiers' Orphans' Home (it's not an evil experiment without throwing in some orphans) Tudor hand-picked ten expendable children with stuttering problems. With half of them serving as a control group, Tudor began psychologically manipulating the other five into believing they didn't have a stutter at all, with Johnson sure that the gained confidence from this gaslighting would be sufficient to turn them into toastmasters in no time.
But that wasn't the truly monstrous part of the Monster Study. Tudor also selected twelve orphans who showed no signs of any speech impediment with the express intent of bullying six of them into developing a stutter. In their blind ambition, Johnson and Tudor even wrote a manual for how to best neg orphans into becoming insecure wrecks. The six children were constantly told to "do anything to keep from stuttering" and to "not ever speak unless you can do it right" -- which they never did according to the sadistic adults in the room.
For the better part of 1939, the six orphans endured this pseudo-Nazi experiment until the study finally concluded that all that psychological torture had been for nothing. The five reassured orphans with a stutter showed no conclusive signs of progress. Meanwhile, Johnson and Tudor did manage to make the non-impeded six show all of the signs of being a stutterer except for one, actually stuttering, with their insecurities about their speech just a result from constantly being undermined by a person lying about being their speech therapist.
Insecurities these subjects had to live with for the most of their lives, in part because they were never told the truth about the experiment. It wasn't until 2001 that the elderly orphans found out why they had been psychologically tortured when The San Jose Mercury News ran a series of articles exposing Johnson's Monster Study. In the meantime, Johnson had buried the findings as they disproved his self-loathing "diagnosogenic" theory of stuttering, a theory that became quite popular in the field of speech therapy for over thirty years, denying proper therapy and guidance to countless more stuttering kids. His original six victims did get paid $925,000 in damages by the state of Iowa in 2007 -- which just about pays for the decades of intense psychotherapy they've likely had to endure.
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