HSem 3715H, Doctors Behaving Badly: The Causes and Consequences of Medical Research Scandals

Transcript Title: 
Medical Ethics in Research
Carl Elliott
Spring 2021
3 credits
Abroad Component: 
Writing Intensive: 


**Online Only** This HSem meets remotely on Mondays and Wednesdays from 11:15am-12:30pm


This course will take students on a tour of the deadliest and most controversial research scandals in recent medical history. Some of these episodes are well-known, such as the exploitation of poor African American men with syphilis in Tuskegee, Alabama, and the injection of the hepatitis A virus into mentally disabled children at the Willowbrook State School in New York. But such well-known cases represent only a small fraction of ethically contentious medical research. In the 1960s, for example, at the world-renowned Allen Memorial Institute at McGill University, the CIA paid psychiatric researchers to use mentally ill subjects in "mind control" experiments involving LSD, intensive electroconvulsive therapy, and drug-induced comas for up to three months at a time. In 1996, during a meningitis epidemic in Nigeria, researchers for the pharmaceutical company Pfizer conducted a study of an unapproved antibiotic on children without the informed consent of their parents, resulting in eleven deaths. In 2013, two neurosurgeons at the University of California–Davis were forced to resign after authorities discovered that they had intentionally implanted bacteria in the brains of cancer patients. Today, the University of Minnesota itself is under investigation after for the case of Dan Markingson, a mentally ill young man who nearly decapitated himself after allegedly being coerced into an AstraZeneca-funded psychiatric study. In this course, we will explore questions such as: What cultural and institutional forces allowed the scandals to occur? What were the best ethical arguments in favor of allowing the research to proceed? How were the scandals exposed? What was the role of investigative reporters, regulatory authorities, and whistleblowers? Should we have confidence that research abuse is not occurring today?

Carl Elliott is Professor in the Center for Bioethics. Trained in both medicine and philosophy, he is the author or editor of seven books, including White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine (Beacon, 2010) and Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream (Norton, 2003). His articles have appeared in popular publications such as The New Yorker,The Atlantic, as well as academic journals such as The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine. He has been a Network Fellow at the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.