Bioethics Blogs

How to make a “vulnerable population” by Laura Stark

“They used my ass and took advantage of me.” This was the story of Eddie Flowers, a former drug addict used in LSD experiments during the 1950s. Leaning forward, forearms on desk, Flowers spoke into the microphone on Capital Hill during the 1975 U.S. Senate hearings into secret government-sponsored research (known as the Church Committee hearings). Flowers died in 2009 and continued to regard his testimony to the Church Committee as the turning point in his self-understanding as a member of a vulnerable population who was exploited in U.S. National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) LSD studies in the 1950s.

“Some of those shots, some of those tests scared me to death. I mean they scared me actually.” This was the story of Wilmer Wedel, a former Voluntary Service worker for the Mennonite Church who was also used in NIMH’s LSD experiments during the 1950s. Leaning back from the dining table at his ranch house in rural Kansas, it was a story Wilmer Wedel told me in 2011 in which he insisted that he was not exploited despite his fear and powerlessness. Wilmer Wedel was part of a research project that was similar in circumstance to that of Eddie Flowers (same drug, same sponsor, same decade, shared researchers, different locations).

Figure 1: Dr. Kornetsky with Carolyn and Don Braun

But compared to Eddie Flowers, Wilmer Wedel’s retrospective assessment of his experience was positive: he was not mistreated, vulnerable or exploited.

These two stories represent a broader set of accounts about people’s experiences in postwar medical experiments that diverge—but diverge in a patterned way.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.