The best books on human experimentation

Why am I passionate about this?

I began working in prisons 50 years ago. I was just out of grad school and I accepted the challenge of starting a literacy program in the Philadelphia Prison System. The shock of cellblock life was eye-opening, but the most unexpected revelation was the sight of scores of inmates wrapped in bandages and medical tape. Unknown to the general public, the three city prisons had become a lucrative appendage of the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School. As I would discover years later, thousands of imprisoned Philadelphians had been used in a cross-section of unethical and dangerous scientific studies running the gamut from simple hair dye and athlete’s foot trials to radioactive isotope, dioxin, and US Army chemical warfare studies. My account of the prison experiments, Acres of Skin, helped instill in me an abiding faith in well-researched journalism as an antidote to societal indiscretions and crimes.

I wrote...

Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

By Allen M. Hornblum, Judith L. Newman, Gregory J. Dober

Book cover of Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

What is my book about?

This groundbreaking book explores the underbelly of American medicine, the sordid history of scientific researchers using developmentally impaired children in overcrowded and underfunded state institutions as raw material for medical research. Against Their Will documents how thousands of children in hospitals, orphanages, and other public asylums became unwilling subjects in countless experimental studies during the 20th century.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Bad Blood

Allen M. Hornblum Why did I love this book?

This in-depth account of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study is considered a classic in the field of medical ethics. Though Greg Dober and I have recently discovered the true origins of the Public Health Service’s “non-treatment study” and former Surgeon General Thomas Parran’s critical role in the ugly saga, Jones’s book is still the best chronicle available, and lays out a devastating narrative of how a sophisticated but uncaring and racist scientific establishment could annually examine and not treat hundreds of unschooled Alabama sharecroppers suffering from a deadly disease. 

By James H. Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bad Blood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From 1932 to 1972, the United States Public Health Service conducted a non-therapeutic experiment involving over 400 black male sharecroppers infected with syphilis. The Tuskegee Study had nothing to do with treatment. It purpose was to trace the spontaneous evolution of the disease in order to learn how syphilis affected black subjects. The men were not told they had syphilis; they were not warned about what the disease might do to them; and, with the exception of a smattering of medication during the first few months, they were not given health care. Instead of the powerful drugs they required, they…

Book cover of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present

Allen M. Hornblum Why did I love this book?

From the pre-Civil War era to the current day, Washington describes the grim saga of African Americans used as “research material” by the medical community. Dr. J. Marion Sims’s gynecological and plantation experiments, black bodies - alive and dead - used as classroom instructional material, and cellblock prisoners incorporated in myriad Phase I drug studies, as well as many more examples, are all part of Washington’s award-winning account of medical exploitation. After reading Medical Apartheid, one will better understand why so many black Americans are skeptical of medical science, fearful of doctors and hospitals, and resistant to vaccine campaigns, miracle cures, and government-endorsed health nostrums. 

By Harriet A. Washington,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Medical Apartheid as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • The first full history of Black America’s shocking mistreatment as unwilling and unwitting experimental subjects at the hands of the medical establishment. No one concerned with issues of public health and racial justice can afford not to read this masterful book.

"[Washington] has unearthed a shocking amount of information and shaped it into a riveting, carefully documented book." —New York Times

From the era of slavery to the present day, starting with the earliest encounters between Black Americans and Western medical researchers and the racist pseudoscience that resulted, Medical Apartheid details the ways…

Book cover of The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War

Allen M. Hornblum Why did I love this book?

Welsome investigates a particularly repugnant episode in medical history; doctors secretly injecting hospital patients with plutonium as part of the Manhattan Project. Designed to weigh the increased threat of cancer during the outset of the atomic era, the book navigates the governmental and scientific concerns of a new nuclear world, the prestigious players who argued for human experimentation, and the unwitting victims - all hospital patients - who’d be used as test material. In addition, Welsome also explores other Cold War examples of atomic abuse such as “radioactive cocktails” given to pregnant women and radioactive breakfast cereal given to five and six-year-old “morons” at state institutions. 

By Eileen Welsome,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Plutonium Files as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a Massachusetts school, seventy-three disabled children were spoon fed radioactive isotopes along with their morning oatmeal....In an upstate New York hospital, an eighteen-year-old woman, believing she was being treated for a pituitary disorder, was injected with plutonium by Manhattan Project doctors....At a Tennessee prenatal clinic, 829 pregnant women were served "vitamin cocktails"--in truth, drinks containing radioactive iron--as part of their prenatal treatmen....

In 1945, the seismic power of atomic energy was already well known to researchers, but the effects of radiation on human beings were not. Fearful that plutonium would cause a cancer epidemic among workers, Manhattan Project doctors…

Book cover of Strangers at the Bedside: A History of How Law and Bioethics Transformed Medical Decision Making

Allen M. Hornblum Why did I love this book?

Rothman was one of the first to examine the culture of research medicine and its relationship to science and American culture at large. Doctors on the cutting edge of new procedures, much desired medical elixirs, and scientific advancement used a utilitarian calculus to determine what was ethical and what the public was willing to accept. Scientific breakthroughs were celebrated with few - certainly no one of renown - taking notice that the breakthroughs were coming at the expense of vulnerable, powerless populations.

By David J. Rothman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Strangers at the Bedside as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

David Rothman gives us a brilliant, finely etched study of medical practice today. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the practice of medicine in the United States underwent a most remarkable--and thoroughly controversial--transformation. The discretion that the profession once enjoyed has been increasingly circumscribed, and now an almost bewildering number of parties and procedures participate in medical decision making.

Well into the post-World War II period, decisions at the bedside were the almost exclusive concern of the individual physician, even when they raised fundamental ethical and social issues. It was mainly doctors who wrote and read about the morality of withholding a…

Book cover of Experimentation with Human Beings: The Authority of the Investigator, Subject, Professions, and State in the Human Experimentation Process

Allen M. Hornblum Why did I love this book?

Known only to true devotees of medical ethics and the history of human research, Jay Katz’s hefty volume (1,150 pages) is a comprehensive encyclopedia of humans used as research material. Information-packed chapters cover everything from Chester Southam’s use of senile hospital patients in cancer cell injection studies during the 1960s, and the legal fallout from such indiscretions, to the ethical obligations of researchers, and the evolution of informed consent as a pillar of ethical human research. Impressive in both detail and scope, this imposing piece of scholarship is a valuable resource for anyone looking to learn the many moral and legal issues inherent in experimenting on humans. 

By Jay Katz, Alexander Morgan, Eleanor Swift Glass

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Experimentation with Human Beings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In recent years, increasing concern has been voiced about the nature and extent of human experimentation and its impact on the investigator, subject, science, and society. This casebook represents the first attempt to provide comprehensive materials for studying the human experimentation process. Through case studies from medicine, biology, psychology, sociology, and law―as well as evaluative materials from many other disciplines―Dr. Katz examines the problems raised by human experimentation from the vantage points of each of its major participants―investigator, subject, professions, and state. He analyzes what kinds of authority should be delegated to these participants in the formulation, administration, and review…

You might also like...

Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in human subject research, African-American men, and medicine?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about human subject research, African-American men, and medicine.

Human Subject Research Explore 24 books about human subject research
African-American Men Explore 33 books about African-American men
Medicine Explore 99 books about medicine