Historical Overview

2. The Evolution of Research Ethics

Research involving humans has been part of medicine for centuries. In the nineteenth century, the adoption of the experimental method in both science and medicine generated significant progress in research involving humans. However, when animal experimentation became current practice, some scientists, mainly physicians, began to question whether research on humans was needed. Various ethical debates arose within the scientific community regarding the appropriateness of such research.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the idea of conducting research involving humans was becoming more acceptable as long as extensive studies were first conducted on animals. With the development of bacteriology (the study of bacteria) and the rise of pharmaceutical companies, the number of animals and humans used in research increased significantly.

Research in bacteriology at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century involved some ethically unacceptable practices. For example, infectious agents were injected in orphans, mentally disabled persons and prisoners without their consent or knowledge. Various other experiments were reported involving use of electric shocks on vulnerable individuals.

There had been some attempt to regulate human experimentation. For example:
  • The Prussian Minister of Religious, Educational and Medical Affairs circulated a guideline on human experimentation in 1900.
  • The German Reich Ministry of the Interior issued regulations on new therapy and human experimentation in 1931.
Yet, such guidelines were largely ignored. Although medical and scientific associations condemned the practices described above, they did not result in any professional, disciplinary or criminal charges. It is only following World War II and the Nuremberg trials that such charges were made.