From NASA’s Apollo launch vehicles to new AIDS drugs, some scientific advances have gone to humankind in dubious ways. Should we come to terms with this? Or forget? Or pretend that everything is for the good of humanity?
In an attempt to somehow tie the 50th anniversary of the man on the moon to local realities, the Washington-based news radio station WTOP-FM posted on its website a laudatory biography of the “brilliant,” as journalists wrote, rocket scientist Werner von Braun, buried in neighboring Alexandria.
The article, however, caused outrage and was quickly removed from the site. Cause? It did not mention that von Braun was a Nazi at the beginning of his career in Germany.
In the history of scientific progress, in general, there is very little that is completely untainted from the point of view of morality. Physics, biology, zoology, medicine, psychology, vaccine science, anthropology, genetics, nutritional science, engineering are all full of discoveries made in circumstances that can be described as unethical, if not illegal.
How should we feel about using the knowledge gained by Nazi Experiments?
Von Braun’s involvement with the Apollo program was not a special occasion. More than 120 German scientists and engineers worked with him for the Americans, including former SS officer Kurt Debus (who became director of NASA’s Launch Center) and Bernhard Tessmann (designer of the colossal Vertical Assembly Building at the launch site now known as the Kennedy Space Center) …
These German specialists were among 1,600 scientists recruited to work in the United States by American intelligence during Operation Paperclip at the end of World War II.
Other Nazi inventions were also snapped up by the Allies. Nerve gases such as herd and sarin have helped develop new insecticides, as well as weapons of mass destruction. Various anti-malarial drugs, methadone and methamphetamines, as well as medical research on hypothermia, hypoxia, dehydration, and so on, are all the results of experiments on humans in concentration camps.
Particleboard, various types of synthetic rubber, and even the fizzy drink “Fanta” were invented by the Germans during the Nazi rule.
Of course, it would be easier to think that what happened at the end of World War II was the only and uncharacteristic case of unethical research in the history of science. But this is far from the case.
For 40 years, starting in 1932, researchers at Tuskegee University (Alabama) monitored the development of syphilis in hundreds of poor black citizens, and none of them was told about the diagnosis, did not try to treat anyone – and this despite the fact that for it was around this time that the antibiotic penicillin, which could cure the disease, became available.
A similar story involved American doctors in the 1940s when they deliberately infected unsuspecting patients with sexually transmitted infections in order to study these diseases. Sensing what kind of protest this would cause if it was revealed, they conducted experiments in Guatemala.
From 1955 to 1976, hundreds of women with precancerous lesions received no treatment to test whether they would develop cervical cancer.
This was later called the “Failed Experiment”. The details became known only thanks to the investigation of the lawyers of the two women.
The polio vaccine (like many other disease breakthroughs) was developed through the presence of human cells taken from Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge or consent. And she received no compensation for their subsequent commercial use.
When scientists developed the world’s first stable cell line that mimics the essence of the human body thanks to Lax, an unaware African American, it was used for countless studies of toxins, viruses, human DNA, and drug discovery.
In the 1950s, Robert G. Heath was the first to use electrodes implanted in the brain in order, in particular, to try to change sexual orientation (that is, to “cure” homosexuality, which looks crazy today). And now a similar technology is used to treat epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, as well as in Elon Musk’s neural lace.
It won’t be too controversial to say that those Nazi experiments just shouldn’t have happened. But if they did happen, what should we do with the results they brought?