Last Thursday’s New York Times had an article about Dr. Perry Hudson, in 1950s a medical researcher at Columbia University.  The article was about his research on skid row in New York City where he offered alcoholics in lower Manhattan an offer: If they agreed to surgical biopsies of their prostates, they would get a clean bed and three square meals for a few days, plus free medical care and treatment if they had prostate cancer.

Dr. Hudson’s goal was to show that if caught early prostate cancer could be cured, a laudable goal especially given that at that time all prostate cancer diagnosed was advanced and terminal.  Despite having had the research approved by Columbia University Medical Center he never warned the men in the study that the biopsies could cause impotence and rectal tears (needle biopsies were not yet being used). Or that the treatment should cancer be found — surgery to remove their prostates and, often, their testicles — had not been proven to prolong life.

In all fairness to Dr. Hudson times were different then and generally people did not see how unethical his work had been.  He was never called into question either by Columbia or by his Federal grantors.  Today, under current standards, the general consensus is that his study was unethical because of both the powerlessness of the people who participated in it and the things done to them.

In the past, we have been guilty of many abuses in the interest of science.  The United States has a rich history of forced sterilizations and research performed without consent and disclosure