The Conscientious Objectors Given Scabies For Science

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, August 20, 2015
Are_You_with_Us_in_National_Service-_Art.IWMPST13964
“The magnitude of our social problems will require that all citizens and institutions make a commitment to volunteering as a way of life and as a primary opportunity to create needed change.” —George Romney

In A Nutshell

The world denounced the horrible cruelty delivered on countless people by Nazi scientists, but there was one scientist practicing in Sheffield that was doing all sorts of horrible things to his own volunteers, conscientious objectors who were eager to show that they weren’t cowards. They were told to wear dirty underwear from scabies patients, forced to undergo surgical shock, vitamin deficiency, water deprivation, and were given wounds, all in the name of seeing what kind of impacts the experiments had on the human body. Some were even given malaria, all by a doctor who deemed the Nazi medical experiments at Dachau “reasonably humane.”

The Whole Bushel

War is hell, and when you’re a conscientious objector, it’s still hell. During World War II, it was a dangerous thing to be a conscientious objector when your country was fighting for the Allied side, and many were isolated, shunned, fired from their jobs, and looked down on.

In 1941, Dr. Kenneth Mellanby came up with an interesting alternative for conscientious objectors who still might want to do some volunteer work. He found an abandoned house in Sheffield and set up the Sorby Research Institute, with the ultimate goal of doing some research that might be helpful in the war effort and beyond. He needed reliably available volunteers for an extended period of time (which could be a problem, as healthy men and women were likely to be called away into the war effort), so he settled on conscientious objectors.

It was perfect. Since his research wasn’t directly war-related, they wouldn’t even have an issue with taking part.

In the end, he recruited several dozen people to join him at his Sorby Institute, starting in January 1941. His biggest project was researching the spread of scabies, a skin disease caused by the Sarcoptes mites. Scabies was a huge problem among soldiers, so learning more about it and how it was transmitted could only help.

Soldiers with scabies came to the institute for treatment, and when they left, they left behind their scabies-infested clothes. The volunteers’ job?

Wear the clothes, then share blankets and beds in an active attempt to pass the scabies around.

They were, of course, infected with scabies from the dirty underwear that they were told to wear. Prolonging the infection allowed doctors to study the infected skin, irritation, skin damage, and ultimate infection from bacteria that settled into the volunteers, all under carefully controlled circumstances.

And that wasn’t all that was going on, either. Some volunteers were exposed to malaria, deliberately made very ill in order to study the long-term effects of the disease. Others were studied for the effects of water deprivation, to see how long they could go and how little water humans needed to survive. And still others were given wounds in order to study healing or had vitamin deficiencies or surgical shock induced.

Mellanby wrote a lot on the willingness and fortitude of his volunteers, speculating that since they had already been labeled as cowards because of their objections to the war, they were more likely to do absolutely anything they were asked in order to prove themselves.

The Sorby Research Institute officially closed in 1946, but Mellanby continued to lobby for the establishment of a permanent facility like the one that he had been running. Bizarrely, his writings on Nuremberg and the practices of medical teams in Nazi Germany—which most of the world had denounced as barbaric and insanely cruel—gave a glimpse into his own unsettling thoughts on his human subjects. Mellanby wrote that the Nazi’s medical experiments were justified, all being done for the greater good.

He wrote of the test subjects, “If their sufferings could in any way add to medical knowledge and help others, surely this is what they would have preferred.” His review of the malaria experiments done at Dachau led him to the conclusion that they were “reasonably humane.”

Mellanby’s research facility closed in spite of his desire to keep his experiments going. It’s also important to note that one of his volunteers died during an experiment on vitamin C’s impacts on the body.

There is no memorial.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
CO Project: Scabies and Conscience
New Scientist: Those who volunteer . . .