James Rathmell

In a recent Big Round Table article, James P. Rathmell, MD, chair of the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine, explores whether a physician best known for his crusade to expose unethical medical experimentation in the early 1960s may have had some secrets of his own.

That physician was Henry K. Beecher, the first endowed professor of Anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School, who practiced at Massachusetts General Hospital. Beecher exposed some of his colleagues for conducting experiments that failed to meet even minimal standards of informed consent. He was a pioneer in changing the ethical standards of experimentation, including shaping the standards for informed consent of experimental participation for subjects.

But, as Rathmell and his co-author write in their article, Beecher had secrets. Although it would not become public knowledge until the 1970s, Beecher had been recruited by the U.S. government to consult on a classified project on ways to influence human behavior. Beecher’s work focused on the possibility of developing a “truth sera” that could be used to interrogate enemy prisoners. His research would eventually lead to experiments using psychedelics, including LSD.

“Beecher was following a trail that had been blazed in Nazi Germany,” Rathmell and his co-author write.

Was Beecher a champion for transforming the ethical standards associated with experimentation, or was he a man who did not practice what he preached?

Read more about Beecher’s life and times here.