1930s: Antivivisectionists campaign against wide use of children as guinea pigs

William C. Black, MD, selected at random, 23 children from his patients and injected them with infected herpes tissues to demonstrate symptoms that were caused by a single herpes virus. (Timothy Murphy, The Ethics of Research with Children, AMA, 2003)

M Hines Roberts described in a major medical journal an experiment in which he obtained spinal fluid from 423 sick and “normal” Negro infants at Atlanta hospital “without regard to the character of labor or the condition of the child at birth.” He described how “trauma produced by the needle at the site of puncture” was responsible for the blood in the spinal fluid in some infants.

Orphans were routinely used to test vaccines and sera: A Baltimore physician inoculated 107 infants with a dysentery bacilli vaccine resulted in complications and deaths;

1930s Polio vaccine tests:
In 1934 two different polio vaccines that were described by their developers as safe and effective were tested in children causing several children to die.

John Kolmer tested a live polio virus vaccine on monkeys, then on himself, his two children and 23 other children, “all immunized at the request or the written consent of their parents.” He then tested the vaccine on 300 children.

At the same time, at another laboratory, Jeremiah Milbank, Maurice Brodie developed an inactive virus polio vaccine. Brodie and William H. Park conducted trials to test his vaccine with the help of the director of Laboratories of the New York Board of Health. First he tested the vaccine on himself and six volunteers from the Bureau; then on twelve children who were “volunteered” by their parents;” then he tested the vaccine on 1,600 children in Kern County, California. The trials ended in 1935 after 20,000 children had been exposed to one of the two experimental vaccines.

Nine children who were subjected to the live polio vaccine died from polio. Independent laboratory tests indicated that Kolmer’s live polio vaccine was dangerous. Kolmer withdrew his vaccine in Sep. 1935. The Brodie vaccine failed to produce the necessary immunity to the disease.

The tragic results galvanized public opinion against the use of orphans in vaccine tests. Antivivisectionists initiated a letter writing campaign that reached the White House. After receiving a number of letters of complaint, Eleanor Roosevelt requested an investigation by the Surgeon General’s office of the use of orphans as test subjects of the newly developed experimental polio vaccines. Kolmer defended his experiment stating that he proceeded only with parental consent, and he explained that he tested the vaccine on his own two sons. Brodie and Park also denied using orphans. Park claimed that the trials of their vaccine were conducted only after the doctors had established “with absolute certainty that it was harmless.” Park denied experimenting on orphans by claiming the vaccine was not experimental since it had been tested on adults and “volunteered” children prior to the inoculation of orphans.

Public concern raised by antivivisectionists led the medical research community to be more cautious and to pay close attention to press articles and professional publications, and to chose the wording in the titles of their journal reports carefully omitting mention of children or infants. Instead, it was suggested they use “human volunteer” so as to avoid the wrath of antivivisectionists.  In 1932, Dr. Hyman Kramer, a member of the Harvard Infantile Paralysis Commission, told a reporter of The New York Times that a serum treatment for infantile paralysis being tested by Simon Flexner would have to be tested first on themselves,

“The Pasteur age is over. There can be no more disastrous wholesale experiments like Psteur’s rabies experiments to children before the serum was wholly proved.” (All of the above was extracted from Susan Lederer. Subjected to Science: Human Experimentation in America Before the Second World War, 1995)