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Wrongful Death in Human Medical Research

Today’s clinical research procedures aim to be as humane and safe as possible. Scientific advances have made it increasingly easier to perform careful and safe procedures. While accidents and negligence can lead to disastrous results, modern medical research has evolved to expressly prevent wrongful death. Even so, the lack of ethics and regulations even decades ago have led to sometimes unexpected and often unnecessary loss of life.

Ancient Medicinal Practices

Medical research and practices were first performed thousands of years ago. While ancient physicians might have had good intentions, most of their procedures would be considered barbaric by today’s standards.

One of the oldest medical practices is the act of bloodletting. While it was first practiced by ancient Egyptians and Sumerians, the procedure became common during the Greco-Roman era. Physicians believed that the four “humors” in the human body (yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood) needed to be perfectly balanced for a person to stay healthy. Patients with a fever or similar sickness were thought to have too much blood, so doctors would use knives or leeches to drain the “excess” fluid. The practice fell out of popularity when people began to realize it did more harm than good.

Evolution of Clinical Research

The first recognized controlled clinical trial of modern medical research was conducted by James Lind in 1747. Lind, working as a surgeon on a ship, took detailed notes of his time aboard. After noticing many of the sailors dying due to scurvy he conducted his own experiment to find a solution. It was Lind who discovered that scurvy was due to a lack of vitamin C in the sailor’s diets. Nearly 50 years later, the British Navy made lemon juice a standard part of seafarer’s rations.

Ethical regulations developed much slower. While the ancient Hippocratic Oath was followed by most doctors and physicians, global standards weren’t established until after World War II. The Nuremberg Code was created in 1947 in direct response to the war crimes committed by multiple nations during the war, including Germany’s inhumane experiments on human test subjects. Among its multiple points, the Code required voluntary, well-informed and understanding consent of any person serving as an experimental subject.

In the Name of Science

Despite efforts to improve patient welfare and safety, many medical and government organizations performed inhumane and, often, cruel procedures in the name of scientific research. One of the most infamous experiments was the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s MK-ULTRA program. Beginning in the early 1950s, CIA officials conducted a number of experiments on human subjects with the intention of developing effective mind control methods. Patients were subjected to electro-shock therapy, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, abuse and high doses of LSD with the intent to alter brain functions. Many subjects suffered permanent psychological damage and several deaths have been attributed to the CIA project.

Modern Research and Experimentation

Today’s researchers must adhere to strict guidelines in order to preserve both the integrity of their experiments and the lives of their patients. In 1996 the International Conference on Harmonization published “Good Clinical Practice (GCP)” guidelines, which has become the international standard for ethical clinical trials. GCP includes mandates for everything from record keeping to volunteers’ rights.

Despite the ethical progress of the medical research field, the idea of experimental research gone wrong is a sure-fire way to capture the general public’s attention. The upcoming psychological horror film Flatliners, for example, focuses on the story of five young medical students who attempt to conduct experiments that produce near-death experiences. The film, set to release September 29, 2017, is the direct sequel to a similarly titled cult classic released in 1990.

Hardy Wolf and Downing's take on medical research.

Image © 2017 Columbia Pictures via

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