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Human-subject research

The hand of Sarah Nelmes infected with the cowpox, one of Edward Jenner's human subjects.

The hand of Sarah Nelmes infected with the cowpox, one of Edward Jenner's human subjects.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London

Medical research often requires human experimentation. Ancient Greek doctors experimented on prisoners. In the 1600s, Edward Jenner used his son and other children to test his smallpox vaccine.

Clinical trials on human test subjects are still important in medical and psychological research. The difference is that rules such as the Nuremberg Code ensure these trials are safe and ethical.

Participants must be volunteers in human-subject research today. They must give informed consent for anything tested on them and can withdraw from the experiment. Experiments must be monitored by outside organisations such as the Office for Human Research Protections. This ensures no-one is placed in unnecessary danger.

Unfortunately, this cannot be guaranteed worldwide. Critics often attack pharmaceutical companies for conducting clinical trials in developing countries. They argue many of the participants cannot give informed consent because they are illiterate or poor.

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Related links

External links:


V Roelcke, ‘Nazi medicine and research on human beings’, The Lancet, 364 Supplement 1 (2004), p 6-7

W B Bean, ‘Walter Reed and the Ordeal of Human Experiments’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 51 (1977), pp 75-92

O Corrigan (ed.), The limits of consent: a socio-ethical approach to human subject research in medicine (Oxford: OUP, 2009)

A Petryna, When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)