Tracking Chromosomes, Castrating Dwarves: Uninformed Consent and Eugenic Research
Ethics & Med., Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 149-164, Fall 2009
17 Pages Posted: 30 Oct 2009
Date Written: 2009
In 1929 Charles B. Davenport, a prominent biologist and leader in the American eugenics movement, carried out an experimental castration of a "Mongoloid dwarf" at a New York State mental institution. His goal was to retrieve tissue for chromosomal analysis in an attempt to understand the basis of syndromal mental retardation. Davenport was assisted in the research by cytologist T.S. Painter, who later achieved scientific celebrity for his work in counting human chromosomes. Davenport also invited George Washington Corner, who eventually contributed to the discovery of progesterone, to participate in the experiment. Davenport planned and carried out the surgery using the questionable promise of therapeutic benefit to elicit consent from a parent with limited mental capacity on behalf of an even more seriously impaired institutional resident. Archival evidence demonstrates that even at that date scientists like Davenport and the physicians he collaborated with were sensitive to ethical issues such as the necessity for consent and questions of decisional capacity, as well as the potential for negative publicity for mistreatment of "research subjects."
Keywords: ethics, informed consent, eugenics, chromosome analysis, medical ethics, medicine
JEL Classification: I10, K00, K32, K40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation