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Petri dish showing the effect of Penicillin on bacteria, United Kingdom, 1944

Petri dish showing the effect of Penicillin on bacteria, United Kingdom, 1944

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Ancient thoughts on experimentation

Experimentation is a vital part of modern medical science - we take it for granted that new drugs and surgical techniques have been tested experimentally before they’re used on us. But, surprisingly, some ancient philosophers argued against methodical experimentation. How could you find the general laws of nature, they argued, by creating highly artificial situations in an experiment? But some physicians in Ancient Greece did perform systematic experiments on humans and animals. Galen, for instance, experimented on the functions of organs.

New instruments for experimenting in the Renaissance

Since the Renaissance physicians have argued in favour of experiments. William Harvey combined dissections with close observations in his work on the circulation of blood. His work encouraged others to perform experiments and throughout the early modern period researchers developed new instruments for the observation of nature. Many of them, such as thermometers to measure temperatures and microscopes to observe very small objects, are still with us today.

Research in hospitals: the development of ideas from the 1000s to the 1700s

Since the late 1700s, hospitals have become important sites for medical research, places where physicians could test the effects of different drugs on large numbers of patients. Building on the rules developed since the 11th century by Persian scientists such as Ibn Sina, researchers developed principles for conducting clinical trials which remain vital elements of modern pharmaceutical research.

The modern laboratory and its new tools


In the 1800s, universities founded scientific laboratories based on the successful chemistry lab of Justus von Liebig. With the emergence of the modern laboratory came the development of lots of the tools we now associate with modern medical science, such as test tubesPetri dishes and lab coats.

Investigating functions of the body

Many of the new research laboratories investigated the functions of the body. Physiology became a very important scientific discipline, adopting experimental methods from chemistry and physics while in turn developing new ones. Animal experimentation in particular became a frequent but controversial tool for medical research.

The Hippocratic oath - Ancient Greece to today

Experiments on living beings remain a central ethical problem for medicine. In principle, doctors have followed the guidelines of the Hippocratic oath, laid down in Ancient Greece, which says that ‘above all, the physician shall do no harm’. In Greece experimentation on living humans was generally outlawed. But sometimes exceptions were made for convicted criminals - the torture of experiments was part of their punishment. Occasionally, scientists would even experiment on themselves.

Risky experiments

Doctors were also willing to take risks with their patients in their search for cures - Edward Jenner, for example, first tested his method of vaccination on 8-year-old James Phipps. Our history books celebrate the fact that young Phipps lived, but other experimental subjects were less fortunate.

Seishu Hanaoka: family experiments

When the Japanese physician Seishu Hanaoka wanted to test a powerful anaesthetic in the early 1800s he discussed the problem with his mother and his wife. Logic dictated that a wife was easier to replace than a mother and so he tested his spouse - successfully. Encouraged by this success, the physician continued to subject his unfortunate wife to tests until she lost her sight as a result of one experiment too many.

Inhuman experimentation: Tuskegee Study, 1932-72


A truly infamous case of human experimentation was the Tuskegee Study, which ran from 1932 to 1972 in the United States. In this long-term study, medical researchers from the Public Health Service failed to inform a group of poor, black male patients that they had syphilis. The scientists wanted to observe the effects of leaving the disease untreated, so they left these patients to suffer and, in many cases, die.

Government restrictions on human experimentation through the years

But some scientists recognised the need for guidelines. The influential French physiologist Claude Bernard, for instance, stressed in 1865 that the scientist should ‘never perform an experiment which might be harmful to the patient’. Governments introduced some limitations on experiments with humans and animals in the late 1800s.

Experimenting with or without permission?

After the trials of Nazi doctors who had conducted human experiments during the Second World War, the Nuremberg Code was developed, which stipulated that ‘the voluntary consent of the subject is essential’. In recent years, many governments have made ‘informed consent’ of the patient mandatory for medical experimentation. But sadly some groups remain at high risk of being used as experimental subjects without their consent, especially prisoners, soldiers, individuals with mental illnesses and people in developing countries.

In the early 1960s a new drug, thalidomide, was found to cause injuries to fetuses of mothers who had taken the medication. After this disaster, which was caused by inadequate experimentation, new regulations for rigorous testing were introduced. The practice of controlled trials, pioneered after the Second World War, was standardised and required for all new medicines.

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G J Annas and M A Grodin, The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation (New York: OUP, 1995)

C Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (Paris: Flammarion, 1865)

T D Brock, Robert Koch: A Life in Medicine and Bacteriology (Washington DC: American Society for Microbiology Press, 1999)

D Gooding, T Pinch, and S Schaffer, (eds), The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the Natural Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and New York, 1988)

A Guerrini, Experimenting with Humans and Animals: From Galen to Animal Rights (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003)

R Koch, Essays of Robert Koch, translated by K. Codell Carter (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1987)

B Latour, and S Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986)

H Marks, The Progress of Experiment: Science and Therapeutic Reform in the United States, 1900-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)

R J Petri, 'Eine kleine Modification des Koch'schen Plattenverfahrens', Centralblatt für Bacteriologie und Parasitenkunde, 1 (1887), pp 279-280

J E Stevens, 'Anaesthesia in Japan: past and present', Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 79/5 (1986), pp 294–298


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