Ethical Issues for Research: A Reminder and Lessons From the 19th Century

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Back in the dark days of dangerous and unethical research, we had Dr Frankenstein doing bad things with his Monster… oh, wait. That wasn’t real. Sorry. However, in Christopher Edge’s (2015) book, “19th Century Fiction and Non-Fiction”, he reminds us of the very real undercurrent of what was definitely going on in the world of science at the time:

“In the 19th Century, the invention of electrical batteries allowed scientists to experiment with the power of electricity. The Italian scientist, Giovanni Aldini, performed a series of experiments in public where he applied electrical currents to the corpses of convicted criminals.”

Edge then goes on to provide an extract from reports of Aldini’s experiments that were carried out in 1803:

“A very ample series of experiments were made by Professor Aldini which show the eminent and superior power of galvanism beyond any other stimulant in nature. In the months of January and February last, he had the courage to apply it at Bologna to the bodies of various criminals who had suffered death at that place, and by means of the pile he excited the remaining vital forces in a most astonishing manner. This stimulus produced the most horrible contortions and grimaces by the motions of the muscles of the head and face; and an hour and a quarter after death, the arm of one of the bodies was elevated eight inches from the table on which it was supported, and this even when a considerable weight was placed in the hand.”

The report continues:

“George Forster was hung at 8am on 18th January 1803 at Newgate Prison, for the drowning of his wife and youngest child in the Paddington Canal. After hanging for an hour in sub-zero temperatures, Aldini procured the body and began his galvanic experiments.”

“On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.”

“The action even of those muscles furthest distant from the points of contact with the arc was so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not rendered it impossible.”

“Galvanism was communicated by means of three troughs combined together, each of which contained forty plates of zinc, and as many of copper. On the first application of the arcs the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.”

“”The first of these decapitated criminals being conveyed to the apartment provided for my experiments, in the neighbourhood of the place of execution, the head was first subjected to the Galvanic action. For this purpose I had constructed a pile consisting of a hundred pieces of silver and zinc. Having moistened the inside of the ears with salt water, I formed an arc with two metallic wires, which, proceeding from the two ears, were applied, one to the summit and the other to the bottom of the pile. When this communication was established, I observed strong contractions in the muscles of the face, which were contorted in so irregular a manner that they exhibited the appearance of the most horrid grimaces. The action of the eye-lids was exceedingly striking, though less sensible in the human head than in that of an ox.””

Quick note to current would-be researchers: no, you cannot take home the heads of dead prisoners to your apartment and experiment on them. For one thing it’s just not hygienic. But of course so many other laws and ethical guidelines exist today that would rule out not only that, but most of what is described above to have taken place in the name of scientific research.

But, ok, you may argue that these research subjects were dead people, and criminals, with seemingly no rights perhaps. Obviously back then this remained unchallenged and even rights to a decent burial were apparently waivered due to the nature of the abhorrent crimes committed by the deceased. No one was there to fight for the rights of the decapitated one. Law was still evolving at the time, and deceased criminals were usually given over freely to science:

“Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. Those who were sentenced to dissection by the courts were often guilty of comparatively harsher crimes. Such sentences did not provide enough subjects for the medical schools and private anatomical schools (which did not require a licence before 1832). During the 18th century hundreds had been executed for trivial crimes, but by the 19th century only about 55 people were being sentenced to capital punishment each year. With the expansion of the medical schools, however, as many as 500 cadavers were needed annually” – read more on bodysnatching and grave robbing at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_snatching .

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In case you were wondering, “The Anatomy Act 1832 (2 & 3 Will. IV c.75) is an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom that gave freer licence to doctors, teachers of anatomy and bona fide medical students to dissect donated bodies. It was enacted in response to public revulsion at the illegal trade in corpses” – again, read more about that at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatomy_Act_1832 . And, note the use of the word ‘donated’. After 1832 it was only donated dead people that scientists were legally allowed to experiment on. Well, in the UK anyway.

But that’s just dead people. What about the living? Research ethics have also evolved over the last century. Some head-shaking cases that helped us to determine our moral compass on these matters included:

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By turns these experiments caused different kinds of outcries and resulted in a firming up of what is nowadays considered good ethical practice for research. Learning can essentially be reduced to the following guidelines:

  • Obtain informed consent from research participants – trickier with minors and definitely to be thoroughly gained with parents as well
  • Obtain permission and informed consent also from any relevant authorities or organisations, and those in positions of managerial responsibility
  • Obtain ethical approval from any university ethics committees required
  • Do not deceive any of them about the aims of your research
  • Fully explain the purpose of your research, what you are doing, how and why
  • Give all concerned the right to withdraw at any time
  • Fully assure participants of confidentiality and anonymity
  • Do not harm your research participants emotionally, psychologically, physically or otherwise
  • Offer to debrief participants after the research, to discuss what happened in depth if required
  • Offer to stay in touch and share contact details and results

On reflection, I don’t think Dr Frankenstein ever asked his Monster if he wanted to be brought to life. And I don’t think we can say there was no harm done there, on quite a few levels. So, yes, by today’s standards Dr Frankenstein’s research was definitely unethical. However, Mary Shelley did preserve the Monster’s identity and therefore provided anonymity by not giving him a name…

Then again, confidentiality was totally blown!

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PS: You can read lots more interesting accounts and reports of 19th century shenanigans in Christopher Edge’s book if you get hold of a copy. See e.g. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rollercoasters-19th-Century-Non-Fiction-Christopher-Edge/dp/0198357400 for more details.

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