5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

History has an ample supply of borderline-supervillain mad scientists who have somehow managed to conduct some pretty horrifying experiments.
5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

We're all familiar with Doctors Frankenstein, Moreau, Jekyll, and Brown, and the various brands of insanity their fictional asses have unleashed upon the unwary public. As is the case with most of our articles, it turns out that reality is so much stranger than fiction. History has an ample supply of borderline-supervillain mad scientists who have somehow managed to conduct experiments like ...

Lethal Artificial Blood Transfusions

5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

Let's say you're the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. Your esteemed head scientist -- the one with the hunchback and the wooden leg, not the one with the hand hook and the eye patch -- cautiously knocks on your door, dodges the first two demonic thunderbolts, and, once he has picked himself up after being caught in the chest by the third, exclaims: "Master! Hissssss! I have created the perfect artificial blood! However shall we test it?"

You consider squirting the mysterious muck into the veins of innocent lambs. Perhaps a few innocent puppies. Eventually, you settle for a few abducted innocent maidens. And as you are hoisted off the top floor of your headquarters by your bloodthirsty former underlings, you truly understand: This was a test. You have failed, and whatever dark creature that will take your place didn't. All along, the answer was clear: Just squirt that shit into a bunch of unwary people all around the country and see what happens.


"Yes, make it so. Also, do I get a better parking spot now?"

At least, that's what Northfield Laboratories chose to do when they started testing their new experimental artificial blood in 2006 by ... giving it to hundreds of people and crossing their fingers. Trauma patients around the country (each and every one of whom was non-consenting) were slipped the artificial blood solution. And the results were so depressing that I'm just going to go ahead and quote The Chicago Tribune:

In a trial of 712 patients, Northfield Laboratories Inc. reported 13.2 percent of the 349 who had been given Northfield's product died, compared with deaths of 9.6 percent in the control group of 363 who received either saline solution in the ambulance or blood in the hospital.

Let's dwell on that for a moment. Northfield subjected 349 unwary trauma patients to horseshit fake blood, which killed a whopping 13.2 percent of them. Even if you generously forget the fatality difference between these poor fuckers and the control group (who were basically given whatever, at whichever hour), that's still a multi-percent difference in the oh shit, they're dead statistics.

5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

"It was all a ruse to promote our new headstone quarry!"

As such, it was hardly a surprise that Northfield's stock didn't exactly shoot up. "No matter how they slice it, it's a disaster," said a financial professional keeping eye on the situation. "If you look at the absolute number of deaths, it kills more patients than saline does." That professional, by the way, was Martin Shkreli. Yes, fucking Pharma Bro -- the guy with zero qualms about playing the villain to all of medicine-needing mankind -- thought Northfield Laboratories' antics were a bit much.

To the surprise of no fucking one, Northfield Labs folded not long after their evident plan to take over the world via artificial blood parasites failed. Martin Shkreli's gotten worse since.

The Holmesburg Prison Skin Experiments

5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

Now you're an inmate in a gloomy 1950s Philadelphia jail. One day, an ominous figure in a lab coat strolls through the prison gates. He would later describe his glee at the sight of you and your fellow prisoners to a reporter: "All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a field for the first time."

Oh shit, right? Better kick your escape plans in motion ASAP, because your facility's about to go full Human Centipede.

Double oh shit! Your daring escape failed! It's now 20 years later, and you're still stuck in Holmesburg prison, at the mercy of the lab coat man, whom you now recognize and dread as Dr. Albert M. Kligman. For reference, this is Albert M. Kligman:

ASe M iya Dinogubet f
LA Times

... Grandpa?

If you've ever had such bad acne that you've actually read up on it, you might be inclined to think Kligman is something of a hero. He's the dude who came up with Retin-A, a tretinoin-based drug that was one of the first truly effective treatments for pizza face, and its sister product, the anti-wrinkle cream Renova. But for the purposes of this analogy, you're still a prisoner in Holmesburg, and because of that, you're keenly aware why the man's name tends to be written in news articles with the middle initial -- a practice usually reserved for those who have broken the law so hard that you don't want to have people confuse them with a potential namesake. It's because this is how he achieved his results:


Wait, why has that dude slathered his upper forearm with cabbage salad?

Yeah, that "acres of skin" quote at the start of this entry wasn't just hyperbole for the sake of a story. It's a verbatim quote Kligman gave to a newspaper in 1966, 15 years into his two-decade mission of freely experimenting with the prison's populace. For paltry cash prizes, Kligman and his cohorts performed experiments involving "toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, skin creams, detergents, liquid diets, eye drops, foot powders and hair dye," often accompanied by nasty biopsies and painful procedures. The bandage-covered inmates tolerated the procedures -- because let's face it, money is money, and it's not like they had a huge pool of choices in the matter. For his part, Kligman never shied away from his human testing antics, specifically noting in his writings that Retin-A got its start "on the backs and faces of the Holmesburg inmates."

Twenty years into Kligman's experiments, an outsider was finally exposed to the prison's antics. Allen M. Hornblum (let's not speculate on why they insist on using the middle initial here as well) found out about Kligman's bandaged-up test subjects while teaching an adult literacy course. Appropriately shocked, he made his mission to expose Kligman's bullshit to the rest of the world. After years of gathering evidence, he finally released his appropriately-titled expose, Acres Of Skin, in 1998.

5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

You really can't go around spurting quotes like that and expect they'll never bite you in the ass.

At the snap of the fingers and the gasp of several nations, Dr. Kligman watched his squeaky-clean legacy drain down to the gutter occupied by the Tuskegee study and other black annals of medicine.

The Testicle Radiation Experiment

5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

It's the 1960s, and ... fuck, it's yet another prison, isn't it? However, this time, you're ready. You've prepared a cunning escape involving 17 explosive-laden pinatas and a pommel horse, because honestly, fuck whatever terrors are going to come next. Alas, it's too late. The guards are at the door of your cell, and they escort you down to a science chamber dominated by a giant x-ray contraption and a strange, vibrating bed that comes complete with a hole at the crotch area. Under the hole is a small box of water.

"What is that water for?" You nervously inquire of a nearby lab assistant, who casually replies: "Oh, that's just where your balls go before we bombard them with radiation."

Oh, shi-


"Wow, what an amazing x-ray of the subject." "That's a Polaroid."

In 1963, the science folks in charge of sciencing America's space race and nuclear power plants were in a pickle. Both endeavors had some of the country's brightest men attached to them. However, attached to each of these bright men was a set of testicles, and many were nervous that the whole "brightness" thing might not stay a metaphor for too long, on account of the potentially large amounts of radiation both astronauts and nuclear workers were subjected to. It was necessary to determine the effects of radiation on nutsacks. But how to do it? Animal experiments? Cadavers? Perhaps brave volunteers operating under full disclosure?

Ha, no! That would be far too sane. Instead, the researchers just offered $25 to 130 prisoners in the Washington and Oregon area, told them they were participating in "reproductive radiation tests," wherein their gonads would be subjected to modest amounts of radiation roughly the equivalent of a regular x-ray, and proceeded to blast them with six or more times that. Depending on who you ask, the experiments were performed either on the creepy ball-pool bed described above, or just by blasting the convicts' nuts with a regular x-ray machine that the scientists had amped up like it was a damn subwoofer.

5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

"Pay no attention to that sign. It's just the logo for our death metal band."

Unsurprisingly, the prisoners weren't exactly happy when these "harmless" experiments started throwing them testicular cancer, sterility, and other nasty health curveballs. However, they faced some complications in their quest for retribution, as this was a time when "Whoops, we forgot to ask your permission, haha"-style experiments weren't exactly frowned upon. Also, they were a handful of prisoners, and in the blue corner were a bunch of respectable scientists and freaking NASA. (Hey, who did you think funded all the crazy space-related experiments during the cold war?) In fact, some of NASA's high officials and even astronauts sat on the meetings, though as far as we know, they didn't personally take part in the ball-charring antics.


To be fair, they probably wanted to do all their existential worrying about their balls way before they were in this situation.

It would take a number of class-action lawsuits (one of which famously awarded the victims a kingly sum of $2,000 each) and a long, hard look from a Clinton presidential commission on nationwide human radiation experiments to finally get the victims' truth out there.

Spinal Tap Surgery On Unwitting Kids

5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

OK, clearly, 20th-Century prisons aren't your thing. Let's go a couple decades back in time and give you a little breather by returning you to your childhood. Boston in the mid-1890s should be nice. Of course, before we embark on era-specific adventures, you manage to catch a cold, because you're a kid now, and kids live to ruin shit. So it's off to the hospital for a checkup with a nice doctor fresh out of medical school.

Wait, is the doctor's name Arthur Howard Wentworth? Oh boy. This was a terrible idea. Abort! Abort!

You wake up strapped on an operating table, the pain of thousand burning hells in your spine. The last thing you see before mercifully passing out is the syringe the doctor brings to your skin -- a syringe that smells oddly of brandy.

I'm so sorry.

5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

Yeah, let's use the obligatory bunny picture at this point.

Recent medical school graduate Wentworth, who worked at Boston's Children's Hospital, experienced his breakdown operation in 1895, when he performed the first Lumbar puncture operation (a spinal tap) on a two-year-old with tuberculous meningitis. The operation was precisely as terrifying as draining liquid from the spine of a toddler with 19th-Century technology can be. There were screams and thrashing, desperate moments, and absolute certainty that the patient was going to perish. At one point, Wentworth had to resort to giving the girl injections of brandy and ether, because when you're already cutting up a toddler with an experimental medical procedure, you might as well introduce her to drugs and alcohol while you're at it. Despite all of these medical hurdles, the kid (who might not actually have had tuberculous meningitis at all) survived, and Wentworth promised himself that he'd never do that shit again ...

... To this particular kid, that is. The 29 children he went on to spinal tap the shit out of (without bothering to get consent from them or their parents) were a different matter.

5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

Hell, let's throw in a kitten as well.

Wentworth's reasoning for these unnecessary procedures was that his horror experience had made him suspect that spinal taps were considerably more dangerous than people believed, which is why he needed to perform a whole lot of them on a "control group" of kids to see what would happen. Upon releasing his findings in 1896, he freely admitted that he considered the risk that he incurred on his subjects justified in the name of research. Because medicine was an awful branch of science for the longest time (and because Wentworth did manage to find out that lumbar punctures were ultimately harmless, though uncomfortable as shit), some of his peers even initially agreed with him. However, Philadelphia physician John Roberts soon called out Wentworth's bullshit and rained down on his experiments, which Roberts dubbed "human vivisection," so hard that Wentworth was forced to resign from his position. Perhaps not coincidentally, within the next few years, the Senate was flooded with proposals to criminalize experimentation on children and pregnant women.

The Guatemala Syphilis Experiment

5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

OK, this time you'll steer clear of any and every situation that could put you in the receiving end of mad doctor horseshit. You travel to a country you've never heard of -- let's say Guatemala -- crank up the ol' time machine, and escape to the end of World War II, when almost every country surely had plenty of other things to think about. Unfortunately, you find it hard to adjust to the local cuisine, and develop a serious case of tourist poops. You go to the local doctor, who nods knowingly at your predicament, and asks you to drop your pants for further examination. As you oblige, you notice the small scalpel in his hand.

Holy crap, did he just cut a notch in your dong?

33 uio's LAMAL

"Whoops, sorry. Let me wipe that wound clean with this totally sterile 'WARNING: BIOHAZARD'-brand Q-Tip."

Congratulations! Your mad dash to escape insane scientific retribution on home soil has brought you straight in the middle of the Guatemala syphilis experiment. Enjoy your brand-new collection of interesting inflammations!

In the 1940s, STDs were a massive health threat to soldiers and citizens alike, and no one knew shit about how to treat them with newfangled antibiotics. America needed to find out whether a penis could be convinced to send a friend request to penicillin, and they needed it fast, lest its people straight-up fuck themselves to death.

So the government sent some of the best medical maniacs of Johns Hopkins University, spearheaded by Dr. John C. Cutler, abroad for some good old-fashioned disease-mongering. Between 1946 and 1948 (and maybe longer than that), they systematically infected unwary Guatemalan soldiers, prostitutes, mental patients, and other "lower-class" citizens with gonorrhea, syphilis, and other STDs to see how they would spread and what would happen, using hilariously awful methods like having doctors nick their patients' dongs and swabbing the cuts with disease emulsions. Then they'd observe, and eventually try to cure, the people they infected. Maybe. If they remembered and felt like it.

5 Of The Most Horrifying Human Experiments Ever Conducted

"Man, this Guatemalan beer is way more awesome than upholding the fucking Hippocratic oath."

All in all, 1,300 people were deliberately infected with syphilis and other assorted STDs, and an estimated total of 5,500 Guatemalans were involved in the research directly or by proxy. Only an estimated 700 of these 5,500 ever received any sort of treatment, and at least 83 were already dead by the end of 1953.

When the truth of the experiment emerged around 2010, the government immediately issued a heartfelt apology to the Guatemalan people ... the government of Guatemala, that is, because some of their own doctors participated in the research. The U.S. side has been fairly quiet about the incident, apology-wise. Though, to be fair, the billion-dollar lawsuit the Guatemalan victims' families have launched at Johns Hopkins might have something to do with it.

Pauli Poisuo is a Cracked weekly columnist and freelance editor. Here he is on Facebook and Twitter.

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