That Time Scientists Tested Sulfuric Acid on Prisoners for No Reason

In 1907, food manufacturers used sulfuric acid to control the pH of molasses and fermented drinks derived from molasses. As food regulation got tougher, these manufacturers had to prove that their additives were not dangerous.

In order to test whether or not the food additive was harmless, the state of Louisiana decided to feed some "negro prisoners" nothing but molasses for five weeks. This was not a covert test. Reading Eagle, a local paper, covered it, writing:

The negroes are used to Louisiana molasses, and there is thought to be no danger of killing them. They do not object to submitting themselves to the test because it wouldn't do any good if they did.

Forcing people to do a test that causes them to suffer but does little to nothing to prove the safety of a food additive is a jaw-dropping combination of evil and stupid. It was so much of both that even at the time people objected to the test. Scientists and lay people wrote in protesting the study. It went forward anyway. What the protesters got was an even more incredible quote from an anonymous scientist:

The most curious misconception [is] the aim of science is for the cure of disease - the saving of human life. Quite the contrary, the aim of science is the advancement of human knowledge at any sacrifice of human life.

Glad we cleared that up. But as shocking as it is that anyone said such a thing, the following half-century of science seemed to confirm the quote. From the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, to injecting people with plutonium, to widespread prison studies, the US and other governments spend the next fifty years experimenting on people in ways that sometimes led to their death.

The question now is, has the aim of science changed? And should it? Obviously, human experimentation without informed, free consent is beyond the pale. But in other areas, the idea of risk to humans is taken in stride. We risk humans when we send them into space. We risk humans when we engineer faster machines, or when they work with dangerous chemicals and equipment. These humans are making the choice for themselves, which makes the difference, but how much scientific advancement should we be willing to trade for human life?

Top Image: Nadine

[Via Reading Eagle, Acres of Skin.]