Dr. James Watson: There, But For Red Tape, Goes Dr. Mengele

Dr. James D. Watson, Nobel Prize winner, will always have a place among the highest echelons of scientific achievement, no matter what thoughtless and dangerous things he says. Still, the co-discoverer of the double helix is slowly tarnishing his reputation by a series of gaffes. A few years ago, he opined that there was no way to avoid the conclusion that African-Americans just weren’t as intelligent, on average, as whites: the predictable uproar sent him into retirement. Now, as Watson reaps the well-deserved bounty of career honors in his eighties, he is endorsing the retreat from the standards of medical research ethics originally inspired by the diabolical human experimentation performed on helpless adults and children by nightmarish Nazi researcher, Dr. Josef  Mengele. Mengele believed that human beings could be reasonably sacrificed if the benefits to society and humanity generally were great enough, in his estimation, of course. Apparently, so does Watson.

Prior to receiving an Honorary Doctorate from University College Cork (in Ireland), Watson told journalists that cancer research was being unnecessarily held back by…ethics:

“We’re terribly held back on clinical tests by regulations which say that no one should die unnecessarily during trials; but they are going to die anyway unless we do something radical. I think the ethics committees are out of control and that it should be put back in the hands of the doctors. There is an extraordinary amount of red tape which is slowing us down. We could go five times faster without these committees.”

Yes, indeed they could go five times faster. They could also begin ignoring such basic requirements of clinical trials as informed consent and avoidance of harm to volunteers. There was no red tape around when Dr. Mengele was injecting the eyes of Jewish children with God knows what to make them look more Aryan. He thought he was curing cancer too: the Nazis fervently believed that Jews were a cancer on the human race.

There was no red tape in place between 1946 to 1948 stopping Dr. John C. Cutler, internationally known expert on sexually transmitted diseases and a former assistant surgeon general, from infecting nearly 700 Guatemalans who were prisoners, mental patients and soldiers, with syphilis without their knowledge. The goals of the research were noble: to find out whether penicillin could prevent the transmission of syphilis, to develop better blood tests for the disease, and to learn and what dosages could cure syphilis. A lot of useful data came out of the study; a lot of Guatemalans presumable were crippled or died, too. In Dr. Cutler’s estimate, curing syphilis, which was once a genuine human scourge, was worth the human cost. After all, it was likely that some of those Guatemalans would have been infected with the disease anyway. Right, Dr. Watson?

The Nuremberg Code was developed in 1947 in response to Mengele’s atrocities, and was refined considerably by the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki in 1964 (amended many times thereafter, most recently in 2008). These and related laws, regulations and clinical research ethics codes were explicitly designed to protect human subjects of research from the single-minded zealotry of scientists like J.D. Watson, who casually calculate that experiments that kill unconsenting patients can be  justified because “they would have died anyway.” This isn’t even a small step from using terminal patients as guinea pigs for risky experimentation. “People are so frightened by being wrong,” he continued, “I figure that it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, if you’re sometimes right. The main thing is to try.” Dr. Mengele might have said something like that. “Okay, so I was wrong about the blue-eyed thing. Give me a break: at least I tried!”

It is the all too common attitude of scientists like Dr. Watson that makes the layers of regulations and red tape so necessary. We can trust these scientists to be dedicated, hard-working and brilliant. What we cannot trust them to do is to properly balance individual human rights and the value of scientific and medical advancement. Dr. Watson should be grateful for the red tape. It keeps scientists like him from becoming monsters.


5 thoughts on “Dr. James Watson: There, But For Red Tape, Goes Dr. Mengele

  1. This is nothing new. American Margaret Sanger was an early eugenicist, admirer of Adolf Hitler. Rockefeller Foundation documents demonstrate an clear intent to enable global population reduction. Gates Foundation, Ford, Al Gore and others… same. Problem was, Hitler was too upfront about it, whereas the others are more subtle. Read up on fluoride in the water supply, GMO effects on 3rd generation sterilization in experimental animals, mercury effects in vaccines, chemtrails’ contents of aluminum and barium compounds that affect crop growth (except genetically modified Monsanto seeds), among others.

  2. Wasn’t it Dr. W. who walked into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge (UK) in 1953 and announced to the lunchtime crowd that they had “found the secret of life?” He’s never had that firm a grip on human reality.

    Nor do most medical doctors and scientists — the people who should know the most about people. Advanced science degrees, and medical school, in particular, are still lacking in contact with and comprehension of the societies they are supposed to serve. Med school applications require only two sequential courses in psychology OR sociology (some accept cultural anthropology), easily forgettable since none of them nor any of the “humanities” are required for the MCATs except where they are geared toward psychiatry, an area which sees people solely in terms of mental illness and aberration.

    I am not saying … well, not exactly … that all students going into the academic grinder at kindergarten and coming out 22-25 years later with professional qualifications have missed out on getting to know themselves and some of the rest of the human race very well, but most of what they have absorbed has been from textbooks, laboratories, and the occasional foray into pubs and career-related employment. It is my opinion — here comes an opionion on opinions! — that most professionals coming wholly out of the scientific perspective hold a rather low opinion of the human race in general (while holding a correspondingly elevated opinion of their own rank in it) and a detached disdain for specific members of it except as those members can be used to further their own intellectual or commercial purposes.

    Without getting into the problems of medical ethics (lawyers are well up on these), I find it especially disturbing that there is no code of ethics for scientists at all. Several have been proposed (the most comprehensive in 1984 in Uppsala, Sweden) but as far as I know the only one that has been taken up was by the Biomedical Scientist graduating class of 2008 in Canada and is more of a general pledge than a code, but it will do for a start:

    “I have entered the serious pursuit of new knowledge as a member of the community of graduate students at the University of Toronto. I declare the following:
    Pride: I solemnly declare my pride in belonging to the international community of research scholars.
    Integrity: I promise never to allow financial gain, competitiveness, or ambition cloud my judgment in the conduct of ethical research and scholarship.
    Pursuit: I will pursue knowledge and create knowledge for the greater good, but never to the detriment of colleagues, supervisors, research subjects or the international community of scholars of which I am now a member.
    By pronouncing this Graduate Student Oath, I affirm my commitment to professional conduct and to abide by the principles of ethical conduct and research policies as set out by the University of Toronto.”

  3. As a medical doctor, having been through all of that prolonged adolescence known as medical education (in the 70s and 80s), I can attest that there is something to what you argue. Given the very competitive nature of med school admissions, and the recognition that scientific literacy should come first, it’s an unfortunate fact of life that ethical literacy (if you can even define it, and therefore be selective about it in admissions) gets short shrift. Without a doubt, my French and English major colleagues contributed to such ethical elements as part of the educational milieu at the time. They were more likely to end up as the family practitioners, pediatricians and yes, psychiatrists. The hard core scientists, MD-PhDs and such, generally were more interested in personal achievement and probably recognition, worshiping the god of science first.

    • It’s a delight to find rule-proving exceptions like you, Peter. Your second post made me go back and look at the first again and take you up on your “read up on” challenge.

      Whereupon, I mis-Googled and wound up in a study on “the sterilization effect of ionizing radiation on the third generation oral cephalosporins” which severely taxed my knowledge (my wha…?) of radiation chemistry and physics. But it renewed my faith in both the precision and the flexibility of the English language. Thanks ever so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.