Unwitting Lab Rats: The Uncaring Cary Experiment of the 1940s
Unwitting Lab Rats: The Uncaring Cary Experiment of the 1940s
All living things evolve and adapt. Life demands it.
For humankind, it includes the changing evolution of ethics and morals, although the brutality generally remains in some form whether it be physical, financial or political. We are the continuation of our Paleolithic and Neolithic beginnings of human violence: prehistoric, specialised and ancient warfare from the Bronze and Iron Ages. Forerunners of the themes and differing volume of human violence. Collective and intimate. Religious-based. Criminal. Overt, covert, multicomponent representations and constructions of violence that define the spiritual evolution human beings refuse to have.
So ubiquitous is violence that we are indeed conscious that no body of work could ever possibly analyse the depth and breadth of the experience of human ferocity, or explore the nexus of violence and emotion across the globe throughout the entirety of history. It would be a task akin to counting every time the word ‘and’ has been inferred or spoken since language began.
Indeed the collective psychology of violence changes. Fewer than 250 years ago, violent punishments still included a Skevington’s Daughter, a Judas Cradle, Heretic’s Fork and being hanged, drawn and quartered. The last known use of a Catherine Wheel as a means of execution was just 1841, in Prussia when the court decided that Rudolf Kühnapfel had robbed and murdered a bishop. It was the Age of Enlightenment between the late 1600s and 1815 that predominantly brought the scientific, political and philosophical discourse that changed the ethics and morals of violence.
Changing attitudes to violence occur with the melding of consistent, yet contextual external social rules are in congruence with our personal, internal compasses of right and wrong. It’s collaboration. Violence itself will always weave and duck to emerge victorious somewhere else; whether it be a war, a social or scientific experiment or the virtual violence of divisive topic siding across media platforms.
Seemingly it’s always done under the motto of mayhem – which is that’s it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Think Rio Tinto and Juukan Gorge. Or BHP in the central Pilbara: 86 sacred sites successfully destroyed after existing for between ten and fifteen millennia.
All of it unmitigated physical, ecological, cultural and spiritual violence.
Arguments in favour of a notable decline in global violence over the past five hundred years are interpretations of little more than ill-defined numbers and stretchy statistics. There is no linear approach to the function of violence in any given society. It needs to include the divaricate aspects of the inherent roles of the state, and judicial system influences on masculinity, disempowerment, racial inequality, and apparent political value.
The Nuremberg Trial, and subsequent Tribunal after the Second World War straightened out a few of those things.
Its charter changed international law by holding individuals, rather than states responsible for crimes against humanity. Under the shadow of Hitler, the world united and agreed on minimum standards of dignity to be afforded to all human beings. Recorded as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, enforceable under the Human Rights Convention. Torture, slavery and forced labour were clearly confined to history.
Or to merely ditch the uniforms for corporate-wear and keeping the long white coats.
In 1946, after the horrors of war and just two years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was effected, Sweden decided it needed to know why its 1930s study revealed cavities in 83% of three-year-olds’ teeth.
Try saying that with a missing tooth or two.
To this day, Swedes consume more lollies than any other country in the world – weighing in at a hefty 16kg per person per year.
Although the amount would have undoubtedly altered over 90 years, the proclivity would have been the same. We now know the effect sugar would have had on Sweden’s tattered toddler teeth.
Like Aussies and alcohol, like Londoners and their local, like Americans’ wild frontier assertion of overreach and overconsumption, almost every country in the course of time builds habitual bad behaviour to appear as tradition.
For Swedes, one of those traditions is lördagsgodis, or Saturday candy. According to custom, only Saturday is for sweets; inspired by the outcome of the 1947 Vipeholm Hospital experiments.
The irony is that for this to actually be a sweet tradition, it’s clearly sugar coated.
Post WWII brought new Swedish mandates that required municipalities to provide necessary dental care to its constituents. With fewer dentists than the system demanded, the modality of prevention rather than treatment made better use of resource limitations.
The real problem was that nobody actually knew how to prevent tooth decay.
Dental caries had long been a topic of speculation – the ‘after’ of an array of causes, from drinking wine and eating hot food, to masturbation and mineral deficiencies. 1938, world science was nominating either too many carbohydrates, or lack of vitamins as the culprit but there was no definitive proof.
It was the Swedish National Medical Board that decided to definitively solve the mystery of the cary. Not only to relieve their own new unviable dental system, but to garner worldwide recognition for such a major, positive contribution to global oral health.
For it to succeed, it had to be a completely accurate, long-term nutritional study that would test human subjects.
A shocking enough declaration in itself to involve human subjects. This was furthered by the necessity for participants to follow a regime without falter or fail, and whose vital signs could be monitored daily. It required an environment under the complete control of researchers.
Clearly the name Joseph Mengele had slipped minds into neutral-Sweden mode when the Board realised its jurisdiction over the state’s mental institutions. Of the four in operation at the time, Vipeholm was conceivably the bleakest.
It was a place of patients who could not dress themselves with many tied to their beds. Doors were locked at all times. Patients in solitary were kept in an empty isolation chamber on a bed bolted to the floor. Only a spoon was needed for all meals slopped in front of the 660 poor wretches in the place.
The research team split patients into three groups. Every one of them would undergo extreme sugar consumption over a two-year period – only the delivery method would differ.
Sugar was consumed on a daily basis via either solution, sugary bread at meals, or toffee given between meals; formulated with a specific mode of stickiness to cling to teeth and gums. Every patient suffered. Of all oral disease and dysfunction created by this callous research, almost 10% resulted in pretty much complete oral ruination.
Research, thy name is reprehensible.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world in the pursuit of a healthier society despite the wholesale destruction of even the possibility of abundant and healthy foods. Vipeholm is yet another example of the powers that be sacrificing society’s most vulnerable because it’s never about scrupulous health, but rather unscrupulous wealth.
What a surprise. Ultra-processed food companies do the same. Not in the name of research, but in the name of ultra-consumption consumerism, whereby thy name too, is reprehensible. For Sweden’s 1946-1948 experiments and revised trials in 1949, tonnes of chocolates and caramels were not the only sweeteners of confectionary industry donations.
To categorically prove that sugar – particularly when eaten between meals – causes tooth decay meant that more than 650 institutionalised and exploited individuals endured a cruelly compounded life of misery by having the hand that feeds them bite them.
Pow! Right in the kisser.
After three years of enforced and excessive sugar consumption along with huge amounts of sweet support and lots of lolly from the commercial market, the results of Vipeholm was evidence of the clear cause-and-effect of sugar on dental health. The lolly lords were extremely displeased and the results weren’t made public until 1953.
What created most outrage upon those findings and the delay, was that science had been bought – no mind or mention of the inhumane treatment of its diminished, and diminishing human guinea pigs. It took another forty years for studies to appear about the questionable ethics of the Vipeholm experiments. Were it part of the Nuremberg Trials, the researchers, practitioners and members of the medical and hospital boards would all be held accountable. Curiously, although it occurred after the collectively perceived justice of Nuremberg, no personal culpability was ever assigned.
Such is the molten mud of the evolution of ethics and morals.
The basis of lördagsgodis is the moderation of limiting confectionary to a weekly occasion rather than a daily insistence. With the average Swedish family of four getting through almost 5kgs of hard or chewy sweets a month, that’s an awful lot of scoffin’ on a Saturday.
Seemingly then, the tradition has evolved to stretch over a few more days and a number of other occasions during the week because consuming 1.2kgs of ‘candy’ within one day is surely detrimental on other levels.
Like blood sugar.
Even the WHO adult recommendation of no more than 54 grams, (around 12 teaspoons) of sugar per day seems excessive. Stick a week’s worth in a glass and see how you feel. Multiply it by four if you’re game.
Twelve, if you’re feeling particularly reckless.
The Swedes were certainly not alone in conducting highly controlled and questionable human experiments at the time. In producing the first atomic bomb, known as the Manhattan Project, between April 1945 and July 1947, part of that was to inject radioactive substances into humans. On Franklin D. Roosevelt’s watch, at least thirty poor, sick and disenfranchised Americans were injected with either plutonium, uranium, polonium or americium – a synthetic radioactive chemical element of little use other than in smoke alarms, and its potential for future spacecraft batteries. It accumulates, and stays in the bones, emitting radioactive alpha particles that damage surrounding tissue. When the body can no longer sustain years of this continual repair, the result can be bone cancer.
The use of prisoner populations for experiments has been a widespread practice, often considered part of the repayment of their debt to society. While Vipeholm inmates were losing their teeth, the US government was infecting Guatemalan prisoners with syphilis for its public health studies. Until the1970s, more than 90% of drug toxicity testing was conducted on prisoners. Biomedical experiments at Holmesburg Prison, Philadelphia, over twenty years resulted in some permanent injuries.
It seems the only difference between the Third Reich, the Swedish National Medical Board and the US government is that one of them lost the war.
It was not until the year that Bowie, Iggy Pop and Elton John were born that the Counsel for War Crimes in fact adopted the Nuremberg Code – this 10-point declaration claimed as the most comprehensive medical and scientific set of ethics, that included informed consent, and nonmaleficence.
Bravo! you might say.
But it took until Nicholas Cage, Keanu Reeves and Laura Linney landed on the planet for these principles to be incorporated into the Declaration of Helsinki, the internationally definitive document on the culture of research ethics.
For all that, like the Declaration of Human Rights, it’s not legally binding. It’s basically a phone-pic of an intricate artwork – a symbol, intangible at best. Its last revision was more than a decade ago, in 2008. No doubt it is nowhere near complex enough to save the worldwide population from the psychological and intellectual experimentation that current commerce and communication platforms now afford.
That nobody saved the experimented mental patients in the ‘40s is less shocking than the patience it takes to understand the current experiments making us mental nobodies. The universal protection proffered by the Declaration of Helsinki is almost a decade-and-a-half behind electronic communications and social media – equivalent to about one hundred and fifty non-algorithm years.
A few decades from now we’ll be horrified by how unknowingly we gave the keys to engineer versions of ourselves in the evolution and adaptation of artificial intelligence – its artificial hand spoon-feeding us.
And all the while we know, and it knows, of Robert Burns’ 1785 poem that tells us, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley.”
Though the language evolved, that sentiment is sediment, so slow moving is our ethical and moral morass. In its raw form, Darwinism puts men as the ultimate development of mice. Seems the 21st century arrived with consensual non-consent to the evolution of men to mice.
Our adaptation? Blessed is the geek, for they shall inherit the earth.
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