Sadly, there is a long history of the unethical treatment of human subjects in various types of medical and biological research. For example, one of the most notorious clinical studies of all time was initiated in 1932, with the goal of tracking the progression of untreated syphilis infection. At the time, treatments for syphilis included highly toxic mercury, bismuth, and arsenic-containing compounds of questionable effectiveness.
The study was a collaboration between the Tuskegee Institute and the U.S. Public Health Service in Alabama, and was intended to determine the progression of the disease, the effectiveness of treatments at different stages, and modes of disease transmission. Doctors recruited 399 black men thought to have syphilis, as well as 201 healthy black men as controls. Study participants were kept unaware of their diagnosis of syphilis but, in return for participating in the study, the men were promised free medical treatment if they tested positive, rides to the clinic, meals, and burial insurance in case of death.
The initial aim of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, as it was known, was perfectly legitimate: to gather medical knowledge. However, during the mid-1940s, when penicillin had been shown to be a highly safe and effective cure for syphilis infection, the researchers did not abandon the study, but continued to subject their unwitting participants to painful complications and death due to syphilis infection until 1972, when a story about the study appeared in the national press. Public outcry caused an abrupt end to this research, followed by the filing of a class action lawsuit against the U.S. government on behalf of the survivors.