Professor Discusses Ethics of World War II Biological Weaponry Tests

The Japanese army killed around 10,000 Chinese civilians, Russians, and American prisoners of war while testing biological weaponry during World War II, but the U.S. government withheld knowledge of the fatal tests. Even though the episode has often been overshadowed, it played a significant role in America’s ethical history, according to professor David S. Jones ’97 at the Ethics of Human Experimentation, a discussion hosted by the Harvard Undergraduate Bioethics Society Monday night.

Jones, the A. Bernard Ackerman Professor of the Culture of Medicine, began the discussion by asking about 20 attendees to list “notorious” examples of human experimentation in the 20th century. One student brought up the Milgram experiment, in which researchers studied subjects’ willingness to obey authority figures despite morally-suspect commands. Another noted the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which the U.S. government investigated syphilis by leading a subject group of African American men to falsely believe they were receiving free government treatment for the disease.

Few students were familiar with Japan’s fatal tests even though they caused far more casualties than the other studies mentioned.

Gus G. Ruchman ‘15, co-president of the Bioethics Society, speculated during the discussion that Americans did not focus on Japan’s experiments because they were sympathetic following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“A number of the Japanese [war crimes] haven’t figured prominently into certain textbooks because there was such a politically charged idea surrounding the fact that we dropped atomic bombs,” Ruchman said.


According to Jones, however, the U.S. government actively suppressed publicity of Japan’s tests in order to benefit from the experimentation. By offering Japanese scientists bribes and amnesty from capital punishment for their war crimes, the U.S. convinced them to share their findings.

To illustrate that American decision makers dismissed the ethical ambiguity of their involvement, Jones quoted R. M. Cheseldine, a U.S. colonel during World War II. Cheseldine conceded at the time that American bribes might eventually reflect poorly on the government but argued that the potential knowledge was worth the “risk of subsequent embarrassment.”

Jones said that discussions like the one hosted by the Bioethics Society are important because conditions still exist--such as lingering racial inequalities, mechanisms of secrecy, and concerns for national security--under which the U.S. government might be willing to overlook human rights violations.

“We have learned exactly the situations under which transgressions take place and we allow those situations,” Jones said. “I think it’s very important to broaden the bioethical discussion to include people in historical fields,” he added later.


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