The history of research ethics begins with the tragic history of research abuse by Nazi doctors during World War II. A total of sixteen German physicians practiced unethical medical experiments on Jews, gypsies, and political prisoners. In 1947, out of this horror, came the Nuremberg Code and other international codes of ethics written to protect research participants. Under this code, the physicians were convicted for crimes against humanity. This also led to standards in research requiring that subjects participate voluntarily and are informed of the risks of the research.
Next is the Stanley Milgram's experiment. Stanley Milgram was a psychologist from Yale University. He conducted a study on the conflict between obedience toward authority and ones personal conscious. He examined justification for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense was based on "obedience" and that they were just following their supervisor's orders.
This experiment demonstrated how people reacted toward an authority figure while giving an apparent electrical shock. In the experiment, so called "teachers" (who were unknown subjects of the experiment) were recruited by Milgram. They were asked
to administer an electrical shock of increased intensity to a "learner" for each mistake he
made during the experiment. The fictitious story given to these "teachers" was that the
experiment was exploring effects of punishment (for incorrect responses) on learning
behavior. The "teacher" was not aware that the "learner" in the study was an actor merely
faking discomfort as the "teacher" increased the intensity of the electric shocks. The
shocks were administered by the "teacher" starting at 15 volts. When the "learner" gave
an incorrect response, the volt would increase by 15 volts intervals. Some teachers went
to the maximum of 450 volts. At times the "teacher" questioned the experiment but
continued even though some were obviously extremely uncomfortable in doing so. This
study raised many questions about how the subjects could bring themselves to administer
such high shocks. More important to our interests are the ethical issues it raised itself.
Some of the questions raised were:
1. What right does a researcher have to expose subjects to such stress?
2. What activities should be or not be allowed in marketing research?
3. Does the search for knowledge always justify such "costs" to subjects?
4. Who should decide such issues?
Besides this study, there were other experiments that also brought about awareness to the
issue of ethics.
In 1932, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was a 40-year project administered by the US Public Health Service in Macon County, Alabama. The American Government promised 400 men free treatment for bad blood which had become an epidemic in the county. The treatment was never given to the men and was in fact withheld. The study
sample was made up of poor African American men who were told that they had "bad
blood". These men did not receive standard treatment for syphilis even when penicillin
was available later during the study. The men in the study were not informed of the
research design and it's risks to them.
The Tuskegee Study symbolized the medical misconduct and blatant disregard for human rights that takes place in the name of science. The investigators were not mad scientists; rather they were government physicians, respected men of science, who published their reports of the study in medical journals. The subjects of the study bear witness to the premise that the burden of medical experimentation has historically been borne by those least able to protect themselves. The government doctors who participated in this study failed to obtain informed consent from the subjects. The study's unethical features did not come to light until 1972 when Jean Heller who broke the story. By this time, over one hundred of the infected men died and others suffered from serious syphilis related conditions. When a class action civil suit of $1.8 billion was filed against those who were involved in the study. The case never came to trial. Each participant only received $37,500 in damages, and the* heirs of the deceased received $15,000.