Horrific medical booklet from 1939: living human fetal experimentation

John Ptak, a scientific book dealer who has written many pieces for Boing Boing in the past, says:

"And so I came to this book.  It's one of the worst things that I have here, and I think it's time for it to go.  But in the meantime I posted this about it.

"It's an atlas of fetal movement -- stills taken from movies made of poking fetuses with needles in surgically removed placentas. It is concentration camp stuff, only done under the direction of the American Philosophical Society at the Medical School of the University of Pittsburgh in 1939.

"I think that this needs to be shared."

Wisely, John chose not to include any of the images from the booklet. I sure don't want to see them. Here's an excerpt from John's post on his blog:

201012061348I can think of no other more disgusting atlas than this -- not for the activities of the fetuses, but how they were made to be "active."

The “this” that I’m talking about is the way in which the fetuses pictured in this atlas of activity were made to be in motion: the fetuses experienced  needle stimulations to their faces, and hands, and arms, and so on.  Needles inserted, movie images made, experiments undertaken on the development of human fetal activity.  42 fetuses subjected to experimentation, physiological and morphological, poked with needles to determine how they would respond during the integral period of development of motility (from the 8th to 14th weeks, in regard to reflexes). The fetuses float in front of the camera unencumbered, and then the long and very pointed needle comes into view, finding its target, then a series of stills from the film made to show how the fetus moved in reaction to having been touched or abraised.

The subject fetuses were “derived from either hysterectomy or hysterotomy... undertaken in the interest of the health, sanity or life of the mother." My understanding from another source (a verbal description from 15 years ago from a very well placed historian of the history of medicine) was that all of the subjects/mothers were African Americans.

Horrific medical booklet from 1939: living human fetal experimentation


    1. Actually, I think libertarians are fairly evenly split on the topic of abortion. Those who view fetuses as full legal humans with human rights are as opposed to it as anyone, those who view fetuses as an early stage of human development with somewhat reduced status generally support abortion-on-demand and stem cell research. And find it kind of odd to encounter fetus-worship on BoingBoing.

  1. From around the turn of the century until as late as 1960, some U.S. states were sterilizing the mentally ill or retarded (“mentally defective” in the parlance of the time). There were in many cases laws requiring this before the mentally defective could marry. I don’t recall any statutes requiring the abortion of children conceived of couples in which one or both members were mentally defective, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it happened.

    1. I’m sorry but how is this any more horrific than an abortion?

      Because abortion is intended to kill an unborn human in the most merciful manner available to the abortionist, but this was a program of repeatedly torturing unborn humans while they were slowly asphyxiated.

      That is significantly more horrific, for most of us.

  2. I have to agree with Ernunnos – libertarianism in and of itself has as much diversity as any other political philosophy; individual views regarding the “person”hood of fetuses will probably inform personal belief in the end more than anything.

    As a person who’s fallen in and out with the libertarian philosophy over the years I’m inclined to think that abortion is something we should view with extreme reverence, never lightly. I definitely don’t support banning it though regarding extreme cases such as partial-birth abortion and rape, etc. I could be convinced either way.

  3. Oddly (or perhaps, obviously), my first thought was of the Flaming Lips song “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles.”

  4. Mark/BoingBoing:
    Is the disgust:
    1) That the fetus were properly by today’s ethical and moral standards acquired in some heinous way (e.g. African Americans were targeted); or
    2) The fact that BoingBoing believes that life begins at conception and thus any kind of experimentation with a fetus is heinous?

    1. Boing Boing doesn’t believe anything. I can only speak for myself. I don’t know when life begins. I jut think it’s horrible to poke fetuses with needles to see what happens.

      How about you?

      1. I don’t know when life begins.

        My place. Saturday night. There will be tango dancing and the cocaine.

    2. Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t even understand the whole “life begins at conception” meme. Sperm and egg are alive before conception, and have about as much capability of thinking or surviving outside the womb as an embryo does, so what’s the big ruckus about?

      I am disgusted by this experiment, and also disgusted by people who pull the wings off flies, and burn ants with a glass, and purposely hit cats with their cars. It doesn’t have anything to do with either of your points, really.

  5. Modern medical ethics takes suffering induced by experiments a hell of a lot more seriously than it once did — I have taught the history of neuroscience (as a TA) and there are plenty of things they did to *animals* back in the day that would not be approved now.

  6. I’ll forgo adding details about abortion procedures except to say that “merciful” is a generous term. I’m really not here to debate abortion, I just find the word “horrific” to be interesting in this context. If a fetus is not legally a person with rights, if it can be legally discarded by choice, then the manner of its demise shouldn’t be editorialized with words like horrific.

    1. Are you seriously defending torment of living creatures on grounds of a lack of “personhood”?

      Torture is OK with you so long as it’s not a “person”?

      That is seriously fucked up.

    2. People are permitted, sometimes even encouraged, to euthanize animals. That doesn’t mean they can’t be killed in horrific fashions. So Antinous is right, this isn’t necessarily about the ethics of abortions, but is about ethics of medical research.

  7. If a fetus is not legally a person with rights, if it can be legally discarded by choice, then the manner of its demise shouldn’t be editorialized with words like horrific.

    I’m all for abortion rights, because for me, its not about what exactly the fetus is, its about the fact that its inside MY body. But, I still think the above statement is odd. Its not at all logically inconsistent to say that something isn’t human, but we can still call something being done to it “horrific”. For example, you have every legal right to kill rats in your house, and most people wouldn’t even be conflicted about it, but if you decided to torture them for days first in creative ways, a lot of people would still call it horrific. Also, you can take your dog to the pound and have it put down, but if you torture it to death you can go to jail.

    When I read this post, my first thought was “this has to be made up by an anti-abortion group”. Seriously, does anyone know if this stuff is real? If it IS real, then I guess I feel about the same about it as I feel about the incredibly horrific experiments done to monkeys in fields like neuroscience. Its very unpleasant to think about and I feel bad about people doing it, but I also recognize that the research is invaluable for treatment of serious diseases in humans. So I really just can’t decide if I’m ok with it or not.

  8. Hmm. I believe I have no right to tell a woman to carry a fetus in her body if she doesnt want to. I am not a fan of abortion, but as a man it will never be my decision to make. However, a fetus that is removed from its mother is no longer part of her body and deserves at least the same humane treatment as any other feeling living creature. Horrific things can be done to lab rabbits too.

    For the obligatory libertarian bashing that is already picking up, I’d point out that government regulation is what allowed doctors to forcibly sterilize women and steal babies for many years.

  9. Wow, there seems to be this illusion in present day america that life has value to people. We fly helicopters to rescue hikers and negotiate for months to rescue a traveler from a foriegn govt. But in our history (and in present day foreign policy) there seems to be such monsterous disregard for life.

    I am strongly pro-choice and don’t believe a sperm and egg are all that makes a human.

    But this is clearly the equivelant of sticking a needle in the eye of a drowning puppy just to see how much it squirms.

  10. Moderator note: This post is not about the ethics of abortion, ergo this thread will not be about the ethics of abortion.


  11. Medical experimentation on African Americans has a horrifying history in this country and is perhaps one of the more personal ways racism touched people. We all know about the Tuskegee syphilis “experiment” (if you can call it an experiment with non-consenting subjects), so the fact that this sort of thing happened makes the charge that these fetuses were African American fetuses all the more plausible. However, precisely because it *is* so sensitive, I think when you make this kind of charge it needs to be more certain than a verbal “understanding” from an historian. Unless you publish the name of the historian or, better yet, get that opinion from the historian in writing, it’s no better than hearsay, gossip, or assuming the worst. It most definitely is not history, and tossing such loaded charges around without the weight to back them up is irresponsible.

  12. Found an article about the good doctor in a 1938 issue of Time magazine. The article says:

    “Dr. Davenport Hooker . . . knows that the grasping reflex originates in the embryo long before birth. He has an understanding with a Pittsburgh hospital, which notifies him whenever it has on hand a living abortus so that Dr. Hooker can rush to the scene with his photographer, make pictures and experiments before the fetus expires.”


    Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,848926,00.html#ixzz17NUE4ApB

  13. FWIW, the University of Pittsburgh’s medical division (now UPMC) hasn’t advanced much in its ethical standards. Having patients in preventable pain is their MO, from children to adults to the elderly, from the relatively well to the critically ill. (Recently a friend’s father was hospitalized with what turned out to be a septic abscess on his spine. While the doctors tried to figure out what was going on, they left him in the ICU, *screaming in pain*, for two straight days with the excuse that “if we treat the pain we can’t diagnose him.” After someone bothered to look at the CT scan they’d done on admission and saw the abscess, they finally gave him a *little* pain medication.)

    Libertarians, anyone else interested in calling for the repeal of the Controlled Substances Act and telling the AMA that their members don’t get to dictate what we medicines we can and cannot use?

  14. It’s charming when we judge actions from the past from the lens of today. By charming I mean ignorant.

    What will the future say about us?

    We are monsters, all of us. Hopefully we can learn more about ourselves from this book than “Christ what an Asshole!”

    1. I fully and unequivocally support a future society that is sufficiently ethically advanced to regard us all as monsters. Sadly, the day will probably never come.

  15. In “Icons of Life: a Cultural History of Human Embryos”, Lynn Marie Morgan describes an epiphany reading a TIME article about Hooker’s presentation to the American Philosophical Society. As she describes it, “It is not that Hooker, his colleagues or his audience de-humanized the fetus or hardened themselves against its charms. They had no charming fetuses in their repertoire; they had never humanized fetuses to begin with.” (p. 201) I’m not enough of a historian to know if this sounds right, but let’s just be happy we don’t do stuff like this anymore.

  16. Poor little buggers. They join that list of creatures that aren’t quite human but still interesting enough to qualify for vivisection, without any of the messy legal and ethical issues that would apply if those things were done to one of us in the name of research. It’s another victory for scentific detachment.

  17. You could dig through centuries’ worth of medical journals, pamphlets and case logs and find more horror than you ever thought possible. That these learned men were prodding fetuses with the technological equivalent of sharp sticks is nothing extraordinary, when you consider it against the backdrop of medical history.

    I’m not saying it isn’t a bit morbid; rather, that it isn’t really worth a fit of revulsion in 2010, when the experiments in question occurred 71 years ago. I’d guess most of the people involved (if not all of them) are long gone by now.

    If you’d like to raise a stink about unethical experiments, I’d suggest you have a look at some of the nightmare deaths imposed upon the laboratory and livestock animals of the world. Their lives are forfeit even before they’re born. There is no empathy for them; no concern, not even interest. If the worst response to pain is no response at all, then the realms of labs and slaughterhouses are where your outrage is needed.

  18. Makes me wonder what kind of crazy stuff may come about if one ever where to invent a artificial womb (tho i guess the short lived series “space: above and beyond” may answer that).

  19. I thought about this a bit. It is an interesting juxtaposition of ethical concerns.

    The fetuses are going to die anyway. Why not learn something from them? Someone in hospice is dying. Why not learn something from them?

    We shouldn’t be poking them with needles. But should we be giving them morphine and rocking them? We think it might be okay to tear them into pieces with suction if we’re quick and don’t dwell on it too much. If we could kill them instantly, painlessly, would it be better?

    I hate death. Sometimes one of my fishies goes, starts swimming upside down and all around, and I know. I used to let them swim around until they died, sometimes it took a few days. Now, I just pull them out and put them on a paper towel, and attend to them as they die.

    I hate seeing the light go out of their eyes. I hate being the one killing them. I hate the struggle – they want to live so badly, and I want them to live. But it’s not to be. It’s less suffering, this way. I never get used to it.

    When I think about this story, I feel like one can find several ethical frameworks in which it is okay. And yet there is something so essentially creepy, so inhuman in its recognition of death – what it means to human beings – that we shouldn’t do stuff like that.

  20. I would have thought that any discussion of this post would lead to a discussion regarding the ethical treatment of foetuses rather naturally. From there, a discussion about abortion seems inevitable.

    Of course, it is a contentious issue that will lead to flaming wars, so I do understand the desire to avoid descending into boring and familiar arguments along rigid lines of belief.


    An interesting/horrific part of the post for me was this:

    “The subject fetuses were “derived from either hysterectomy or hysterotomy… undertaken in the interest of the health, sanity or life of the mother.”

    I wonder how much input the mother had in the decision to remove her uterus/foetus. I’d suggest very little, and if they weren’t Black, then they were probably poor and/or “fallen”.

    Indeed, today there seems to be an over incidence in hysterectomies in the US compared to other western nations. The health system in the US incentivises doctors to perform such procedures through its ethos of profiteering. Could this be a factor?

    But then the original post wasn’t about the impact on women’s autonomous choices from the profit based US health system, ergo…

  21. I noticed that in the little blog about Life magazine photos of lab experiments there was a photo of an embryo in an artificial womb and no reference to it at all and this little blurb puts some perspective. For one, there is no way to grow an embryo from an egg (nor did we have the technology to harvest an egg from a human, etc… at the time) to grow an embryo to the point captured in the photo, for another it has always perplexed me how such detailed video/film was made of embryos and feti in the “Life” movie that chronicles human growth from conception to delivery.

    As a side note, until 13 weeks it is an embryo, thereafter a fetus. Moreover, there is a consensus that pain is not perceivable until just before birth due to how the brain grows so really what the researchers were documenting truly was without physical harm. However, the deplorable aspect is that women had pregnancies taken and experimented on without consent or knowledge is utterly inhumane and arrogant – does not matter what race the women were.

  22. I’m pretty sure it’s been proven (or at least shown that it’s pretty likely) that fetuses do not have the neurological capacity to process or “feel” pain before 24 weeks. I’m not sure what the experience of being poked with a needle until suffocation is like for a fetus under 24 weeks that doesn’t have a fully developed neurological system, but I’m not sure it’s particularly horrific. I would worry more about the circumstances that lead the researchers to acquire these fetuses in the first place and whether the wombs they came from were fully informed and consenting to have them (and the uterus) removed.

    1. A fetus may not feel “pain” before 24 weeks but they can experience fear, and the reaction ‘flight,’ as in “fight or flight.” A fetus can see as early as 18 weeks, and foetuses even of an early gestation period, have been known to move away from things like needles in an attempt to escape.

      1. I can accept that a fetus has a reaction to a stimulus, but I’m not sure that they experience the emotion of “fear” or move in an attempt to “escape.” When the doctor hits your knee with the hammer, your leg bounces up. It doesn’t do that because you’re experiencing any kind of emotion in response to the stimulus, it’s just a hardwired neurological response. When you stimulate a fetus in a way that it’s not generally stimulated in utero (i.e. poking it with a needle), there is going to be a response to move away from the stimulus that I don’t believe based in an experience of pain or the emotion of fear (in early development anyway) but in a hardwired reflex. We, as fully developed human beings, project emotions onto that response that are likely not being experienced by the fetus.

  23. HOLY SHIT! omg, omfg, NEEDLES in their FACES!

    Whew (deep breath). I wonder what they learned from the, well “experiments”, and can we use that knowledge to help fetuses today?

    To all those who decry the acts, are you willing to remain in the dark as to possible benefits? To those who are OK with the science, is there anything off limits to experiments? Aaaand…FIGHT!

  24. Methinks the write up of this book is a little dramatic. Movement of a doomed 8 week old fetus, dying anyway once the uterus had to be removed in hysterectomy: it might be of interest to learning about fetal movements, but a 5cm blob of tissue has nothing on the suffering of the adults in Nazi concentration camps.

    If we’re going to grab torches and pitchforks to go about those causing early-development fetuses “horrific” suffering, why worry about what happened in 1939 to nonviable fetuses– when American fertility clinics create and discard 5 or 10x the number of “lives” in the process of giving a woman a single term fetus. Let’s start a thread about how “horrific” those lives are treated.

    If the matter some are objecting to is the lack of informed consent, that’s a completely different topic. But the header of this thread (“horrific living fetal experimentation”) makes me think the author is not going to give objective information about medical informed consent.

    1. As ever, the use of “methinks” is a reliable marker.

      Marker of what? I should like to be told, since I use that word on occasion. I also occasionally use “yclept”, “obviate” and “niggardly” although such prolixity deservedly garners reproach.

  25. This ucky, but check this out:
    “Hospitalized newborns, from premies of 26 weeks upward, have routinely faced surgery without benefit of pain-killing anesthetics. Although surgery without anesthetic was standard practice for a century, it was unknown to the general public until 1985 when a few parents discovered their seriously ill premature babies had suffered through major surgery with no anesthetic. Instead of anesthetic, the babies had typically been given a form of curare to paralyze their muscles for surgery, making it impossible for them to lift a finger or make a sound in protest.

    Jill Lawson reported that her premature baby, Jeffrey, had holes cut in both sides of his neck, another in his right chest, an incision from his breastbone around to his backbone, his ribs pried apart, and an extra artery near his heart tied off. Another hole was cut in his left side for a chest tube–all of this while awake, paralyzed, and feeling intense pain and terror! The anesthesiologist who assisted explained, “It has never been shown that premature babies have pain.” The operation Mrs. Lawson was describing is the most common surgery done on premature babies, thoracotomy for ligation of patent ductus arteriosus (PDA). Experts taught that this surgery could be “safely accomplished with oxygen and pancuronium as the sole agents.””

    More here:http://www.birthpsychology.com/healing/historical.html

  26. I’m not sure what you (or possibly the original author, who no longer has the quoted text in his post) mean by “in surgically-removed placentas”. Embryos do not develop inside of a placenta. BB, I love you, but you make waaay too many mistakes about female anatomy. Vagina != vulva. Placenta != uterus.

  27. Fine. I can accept horrible science but this is different. What is so fascinating about grip reflex in fetuses? And how is this a philosophical issue? I just can’t wrap my open hand around this. And any lay scientist would know that anything that is dieing from asphyxiation is going to twitch as it struggles to breath.

  28. Paralysis wasn’t strictly required when performing un-anesthesized procedures on kids.

    When I was a kid in the 60s, we had a dentist who still believed that dental work done on baby teeth didn’t need anesthesia. He also used a slow-speed drill, stuffed hard rubber chocks into the fulcrum of your jaw so you couldn’t shut your mouth, and had a lifetime’s worth of practice at drilling with one hand and pinning down the screaming kid with the other.

    He and my mother had conversations right in front of us about how we were misbehaved children who were just acting up. I have never forgiven either of them.

    (Some people’s baby teeth really don’t need anesthesia. Good for them. It’s not universal.)

  29. From the Time article:

    “With admiration in his voice, Dr. Hooker told the spellbound philosophers of a 25-week-old fetus which snatched a glass rod weighing three grams from the scientist’s hand, waved it feebly but triumphantly for an instant before the spark of life went out.”

    I’d like to believe that this one, at least, did not die in vain.

  30. The year in question is quite telling. It took the deep horrors of Nazi and Japanese medical experiments during World War II for the medical and scientific world to arrive where we are regarding patient and study participant rights.

    Before then, we had horror like this, which pales in comparison to what went on in the concentration camps, but is clearly over the line of what we as a society deem acceptable.

  31. he’s done some interesting work, whether or not you believe in his methodology. stuff on spinal cord regeneration in fish (this was back in 1932, mind you) and color recognition in reptiles.

    just tried to get this book via interlibrary loan, but, alas, everyone who owns it charges for it. probably to prevent “certain people” from destroying it.

  32. The funny thing is, if you boil down the discussion here, it becomes remarkably similar to the “Do Lobsters Feel Pain?” discussion. Both lines of discourse are headed in the same approximate direction.

    It’s interesting that a post that is intended to arouse outrage over the treatment of doomed fetuses becomes remarkably similar to an ethical treatment of animals discussion.

    As to how I feel… I suppose if I were going to come down on one side or the other, I would say that it _should_ be a similar discussion. Doomed fetuses, like food animals, deserve a quick, painless death.

  33. Can’t claim to know for sure, but my guess is that if they operate on newborns/preemies without anesthetic, its not just because they think they don’t feel pain or they’re causing pain for the heck of it, its because they think the anesthetic might kill the baby.

  34. Needles are cruel, yes, but hardly comparable to the deliberate, secret sterilization of Native American women by select, ‘well-intended’ white doctors across North America for a few decades.

    Of course even eugenics was once respectable enough to be supported by a handful of Nobel prizewinners. We love to point a finger at the Doctor Mengeles, but the list of atrocities on this continent is, no doubt, just as long.

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