Human experimentation: The good, the bad, and the ugly


On the more noble side of surgical innovation, if Dr. Thomas Starzl and Dr. C. Walton Lillehei had not persisted despite failure after failure and death after death, liver transplantation and cardiac surgery would not have evolved to the lifesaving therapies they are today. These surgical pioneers and many others like them, who have persisted in the face of failure to develop new and useful approaches to surgical disease, can hardly be condemned for their human experiments that were disasters in the short term but enduring medical advancements in the long-term. Their initial patients were courageous, desperate, and hopefully well informed.

What separates these successful forerunners from those who promoted the lobotomy debacle? One factor may be history itself. Passed by Congress in response to the atrocities that had occurred earlier in the century, the National Research Act of 1974 mandated Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) in institutions conducting human research. Although the initial attempts at operating on the heart and transplanting the liver predated IRBs, much of the development of these specialties as we know them today took place under the watchful eye of these committees.

Whereas Freeman’s modifications made lobotomy a procedure that could be performed by almost anyone, cardiac surgery and liver transplantation required resources that could be provided only by major academic institutions.

While lobotomy almost became a traveling sideshow with poor documentation of results, the earliest attempts at heart surgery and liver transplantation were carefully recorded in the surgical literature for the entire academic community to analyze and ponder.

We owe much to those surgeons who persisted against great odds to develop our craft and to those patients with the courage to be a part of the great enterprise of surgical innovation. Without their daring, perseverance, and creativity, surgery would not have evolved to the diverse and noble specialty it is today. It is now incumbent upon us to make certain that future surgical innovation transpires only under an umbrella of safe, well-informed, and satisfactorily documented and controlled human experimentation.

Dr. Rikkers is the Editor in Chief of ACS Surgery News.

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