The best human subject research books

9 authors have picked their favorite books about human subject research and why they recommend each book.

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Medical Apartheid

By Harriet A. Washington,

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

Medical Apartheid is the one book that I urge all of my medical students to read. In a compelling narrative laced with shocking details, Washington reveals the way various forms of racial segregation and bias have shaped the American medical system – from the ghastly 19th century experiments of surgeon J. Marion Sims to the systemic exploitation of the government’s MK-ULTRA program in the 1950s to ongoing discrimination today.  


Who am I?

As a physician and attorney, I’ve always been fascinated by the nexus where my two professions meet.   During the course of my career, I have been asked to advise colleagues on topics as far-reaching as whether a death row inmate should receive an organ transplant to how to offer psychotherapy ethically to a conjoined twin. Although questions like these do not arise every day, even the everyday questions in my field – on such topics as confidentiality, boundaries, and informed consent – never grow old.


I wrote...

Who Says You're Dead? Medical & Ethical Dilemmas for the Curious & Concerned

By Jacob M. Appel,

Book cover of Who Says You're Dead? Medical & Ethical Dilemmas for the Curious & Concerned

What is my book about?

Drawing upon the author’s decades teaching medical ethics and his work as a practicing physician, this book of challenging ethical dilemmas asks readers, What would you do?

A daughter gets tested to see if she’s a match to donate a kidney to her father. The test reveals that she isn’t the man’s biological daughter. Should the doctor tell them? A deaf couple prefers a deaf baby. Should they be allowed to use medical technology to ensure they have a child who can’t hear? Who should get custody of an embryo created through IVF when a couple divorces? Or, when you or a loved one is on life support, Who says you’re dead? In short, engaging scenarios, Dr. Appel takes on hot-button issues in medical ethics.

The Plutonium Files

By Eileen Welsome,

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

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. 


Who am I?

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.

Experimentation with Human Beings

By Jay Katz, Alexander Morgan, Eleanor Swift Glass

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

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. 


Who am I?

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.

The Passage

By Justin Cronin,

Book cover of The Passage

It's difficult to place The Passage in a singular genre. Part dystopian, part horror, but far from the typical vampire or monster fare. The timeline spans for generations, and I can't fathom where the other books will lead the story. The author states that the inspiration for this story came from walks with his young daughter, who gave him the basis of the characters and plot. How cool is that?


Who am I?

As a teenager, back when I still had some traces of childhood imagination left lurking about, I started envisioning scenarios and events which would later come together as a dystopian novel. Walks in the nearby park became areas of great skirmishes between neighboring militias; road trips out west became routes to safety; the dusty lot of a rundown gas station became the setting for a life-altering showdown. Flashforward twenty years or so, and all these fantasies came together in my first post-apocalyptic tale. Yet, my eagerness to explore other authors’ narratives in the same genre remains unquenched.  


I wrote...

The After War

By Brandon Zenner,

Book cover of The After War

What is my book about?

Two years have passed since humankind faced extinction: Two cousins are leaving the protection of their underground bunker for the first time, after a cataclysmic war and unrelenting disease ravaged the earth. On the other side of North America, a young survivalist is leaving the seclusion of his cabin deep in the woods. For individual reasons, these men are traveling east, where the fragmented lives of a small number of survivors will soon be decided by the choices of a corrupt few. The strength that resides inside them will be tested, and destiny will call for their fates to be forever intertwined.

"A fierce post-apocalyptic story of war and loss, of nature's vengeance, of survival in the face of overwhelming odds." - Manhattan Book Reviews

Fear Nothing

By Dean Koontz,

Book cover of Fear Nothing

This book was my introduction to this famous horror author, and though occasionally Koontz gets repetitive with his characters and storylines, this was something out of the ordinary. We have a character that can only go out at night, and we have non-human escapees from a military research institute. A perfect mix for a gripping read, although for me I was sold on the friendships and relationships in this book. The lead character’s pet dog and his rich surfer dude friend and how they all interact with each other adds humour and lightness to a truly scary story that involves genetically modified animals who can understand humans. Again a supernatural and out-of-the-box story idea that kept me enthralled, and made it stand out.


Who am I?

I’m a writer who writes across genres but everything has a dark edge. As a reader I want to be able to relate, engage, and connect in some way to the characters and story, but as I come from an abusive childhood that means they can’t be light and fluffy, there has to be something off kilter and warped because that’s reflects how my life has been. In my own writing I try to do the same and create something that is emotive and real, while still allowing the reader to escape. I originate from Surrey, in the south of England, but I have lived in the Netherlands since 2002.


I wrote...

Dead Lake

By Miranda Kate,

Book cover of Dead Lake

What is my book about?

A new age witch called Tricky, has her obsidian stolen while being evicted from her home. To get it back she comes up against the head of the district, Randolf Carter, and his nasty secrets. Adept at working with energy and time, as well as communicating with trees, Tricky is drawn into something bigger than ownership of a gemstone.

Lakewood

By Megan Giddings,

Book cover of Lakewood

Giddings takes the stories of Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee experiments and extrapolates them into the present day. A young woman dealing with crushing medical debt agrees to participate in medical trials with strange and debilitating side effects. This book is horrific, lyrically written, and brimming with emotion.


Who am I?

All of these books inspired me to become a better writer and to push my imagination to the limit by getting The Ballad of Perilous Graves onto the page. These books made me want to polish the contents of my own imagination and tell the biggest most heartfelt story I could. Ballad is in good company on library and bookstore shelves, so I wanted it to connect as hard as possible.


I wrote...

The Ballad of Perilous Graves

By Alex Jennings,

Book cover of The Ballad of Perilous Graves

What is my book about?

It’s an Afrosurrealist romp through an enchanted city where music is a kind of magic. Nine songs of power have escaped from Professor Longhair’s magic piano to manifest around the city of Nola as colorful street people. Failed magician Perilous “Perry” Graves, his little sister, Brendy, and Peaches, the strongest girl in Nola, have to find the songs and bring them home before the city loses its beat. Part of the problem is that one of the songs is Stagger Lee, the baddest gangsterest gangsta of all time—and he’s working for someone even worse. 

Stiff

By Mary Roach,

Book cover of Stiff

Mary Roach isn’t afraid to dive into the subjects of her books headfirst—and she doesn’t hide the fact that she does. While many nonfiction authors believe it to be uncouth to include themselves on the page, Roach hits the ground and reports from the scene, offering firsthand observations—and her perspective is what makes her work so brilliant. Especially because that perspective offers a human, and often hilarious, side to topics that often aren’t. Which is why I omitted the subtitle of this book until now: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. With Stiff, Roach proves that no subject is immune from her witty, wry, and ultimately fascinating reporting.


Who am I?

In high school, I went from writing (insanely bad!) poetry to dreaming of a career in fiction. When it came time to declare a major in college, I opted for journalism, thinking it would foot the daily tab of my life while I worked on the novels and short stories. But then as an intern at National Geographic and subsequently a newspaper reporter, I dipped a toe into writing about the real world—and discovered that all the brilliant literary goods are right there in front of you. A career as a magazine editor and writer has taught me that truth is indeed stranger than fiction … and a hell of a lot of fun to write, not to mention read, when done well. 


I wrote...

The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing: How to Write, Work, and Thrive on Your Own Terms

By Zachary Petit,

Book cover of The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing: How to Write, Work, and Thrive on Your Own Terms

What is my book about?

So you want to be a freelance writer. Great! But now you're faced with a laundry list of questions: Should I freelance full time or part-time? Should I write for magazines, newspapers, or online markets? How do I dream up the perfect article idea, and how do I pitch it successfully? How do I negotiate contracts, foster relationships with editors, and start getting steady work while avoiding financial panic attacks and unpleasant ulcers?

The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing answers all of these questions—and much more. From breaking in to navigating the basics of the business, this book is your road map to a fruitful and rewarding freelance life.

Show Me a Sign

By Ann Clare LeZotte,

Book cover of Show Me a Sign

This engrossing book, inspired by the true history of a thriving deaf community on Martha's Vineyard in the early 1800s, triumphantly probes our perceptions of ability and disability. I’m always drawn to stories that explore what it means to be and/or feel different. Too many youngsters (and adults) equate being different with being less than, whether the different person is themselves or someone else. I don’t know if our species will ever fully break free of that false belief, but novels like this one go a long way toward achieving that goal.


Who am I?

I fell in love with historical fiction as a child, devouring books like Johnny Tremain and The Door in the Wall. While I always wanted to be a writer, and I always loved history, it took a special discovery to align my two interests. In college, I learned that “real history” had happened in my little hometown in northern New York in the 1920s. A small girl had gone missing, and local anti-Semites accused the Jewish community of murdering her for a ritual sacrifice. It got ugly. Decades later, this incident became the subject of my first novel, The Blood Lie.


I wrote...

Ripped Away

By Shirley Vernick,

Book cover of Ripped Away

What is my book about?

Ripped Away is based on the experiences of Jewish immigrants in London during the Jack the Ripper spree when xenophobia ran high. In the story, a fortune teller reveals that classmates Abe and Mitzy may be able to save someone’s life…and then she sweeps them to the slums of Victorian London in the middle of the Jack the Ripper hysteria. To get back home, they’ll have to figure out how the fortune teller’s prophecy is connected to one of history’s most notorious criminal cases. They’ll also have to survive the outpouring of hate toward Jewish refugees that the Ripper murders triggered.

National Jewish Book Award-winning author Anne Blankman calls Ripped Away “an engrossing adventure” that will make “readers clamor to find out what happens next.”

When the Wind Blows

By James Patterson,

Book cover of When the Wind Blows

This is an oldie, but a goodie. I think this was one of the first books that introduced me into the idea of genetic modification and what might be possible if we could harness DNA from the environment around us. One of the most popular powers to choose in my own book is wings, and when people fill out the questionnaire on my website, that’s what they want. This book brings together the romance of the ability to fly, the love of a found family, and the pace of a thriller with high stakes to lose. One of my favorite books of all time, one I can re-read again and again.


Who am I?

I've always been fascinated by genetics. Ever since Dolly the Sheep was cloned in the 1990s, I wondered if it was possible for it to have a soul, was it a carbon copy, did it know it had a twin? Move on to when I studied biology and then psychology. My brother became a genetic scientist, and we have both always been fascinated by the possibilities. Although the human genome project has been declared complete, there is still much we don’t know about genetics, let alone what we may harness from the animals around us. Although I'm excited to find out, I'm also fearful of how these modifications may be used.


I wrote...

The Unadjusteds: The Unadjusteds Book 1

By Marisa Noelle,

Book cover of The Unadjusteds: The Unadjusteds Book 1

What is my book about?

Sixteen-year-old Silver Melody lives in a world where 80% of the population has modified their DNA. When the president declares all unadjusteds must take a nanite, Silver has no choice but to flee the city with her father to prevent the extinction of the unadjusteds. Battling anxiety and panic attacks seem to be Silver’s worse obstacle while she is on the run, until her father is captured, and she comes face to face with a hellhound. Silver must band together with an unlikely group of friends and discover the secrets of her own genetic code.

Stiff

By Mary Roach,

Book cover of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

In Roach’s macabre yet delightful book, we learn about the usefulness of the human meat sack after its typical expiration date. It’s heartening to think that we can keep contributing to society even postmortem and to learn about the many strides science has taken due to body donation. This read is certified gross, funny, enlightening, and weird. 


Who am I?

People, including me, can be so uptight about their bodies. Early on in my career, I found that writing about my shame (chin hair!) or embarrassment (dogs sniffing my crotch!) helped the stigma go away. Researching and learning about how amazing our bodies are helped empower me to feel confident and comfortable being fully myself. I think it can do the same for others, too. My takeaway: There is greatness in our grossness. 


I wrote...

Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front

By Mara Altman,

Book cover of Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front

What is my book about?

Mara Altman's volatile and apprehensive relationship with her body has led her to wonder about a lot of stuff over the years. Like, who decided that women shouldn't have body hair? And how sweaty is too sweaty? Also, why is breast cleavage sexy but camel toe revolting? Isn't it all just cleavage? These questions and others like them have led to the comforting and sometimes smelly revelations that constitute Gross Anatomy, an essay collection about what it's like to operate the bags of meat we call our bodies. 

Divided into two sections, "The Top Half" and "The Bottom Half", with cartoons scattered throughout, Altman's book takes the listener on a wild and relatable journey from head to toe - as she attempts to strike up a peace accord with our grody bits. 

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