The Albert B. Sabin Digitization Project: Prisoner Volunteer Based Research – The New Jersey State Prison Experiment

Copy of certificate given to experiment volunteers, August 31, 1944.

By Megan Ryan, Sabin Project Student Assistant

In the post-World War II years, the experimental side of Dr. Sabin’s work relied upon prisoner research for development. The role of prisoner volunteer-based research was extremely relevant in the development of modern medicine in the late-1940’s and early-1950’s in the United States. Notably occurring right in the midst of this trend was Dr. Sabin’s New Jersey State Prison experiment in the 1940’s on sandfly and dengue fever.

As the frequency of prisoner-based experimentation increased, so did the interest in the ethics of human experimentation. Experiments performed on prisoners were viewed as ethical to most, including the American Medical Association House of Delegates who developed the following rules in 1946:

  1. Consent must be given,
  2. The experiment must be performed on animals initially, and
  3. Proper medical protection must be provided.[1]

Dr. Sabin’s research was well within these parameters. The duties for the volunteers were explicitly provided:

The duties of those who volunteer for this experiment would be as follows: They would report to the infirmary in assigned groups of ten or twelve where they would be confined during the incubation period and put to bed if they became ill. Altogether a period of hospitalization amounting to eight or nine days would be anticipated. Some of the volunteers might be used twice.[2]

Volunteers also had to sign a waiver that included this language:

The undersigned hereby voluntarily offers himself as a subject for experimental inoculation with the viruses of sandfly fever and dengue fever[…] I recognize that the tests are being carried out in an effort to increase knowledge with regard to these diseases and in particular with knowledge which may lead to a better control among troops in the field. I also recognize that these tests are being done as a war time measure, and that my particupation [sic] in them is being done in an effort to help the war.[3]

The correspondence between the volunteers and Dr. Sabin shows a high level of volunteer enthusiasm and a desire to participate in future experimentation. Dr. Sabin exhibited compassion towards his subjects in correspondence to General Bayne-Jones on July 14th, 1944, “I hate to trouble you with what may appear to be a trivial matter. During these hot days many of the volunteers with high fevers have been most uncomfortable and all the efforts we have made to obtain electric fans for our special ward have been to no avail…if there is anything at all that could be done about the fans through your office, it would bring great relief to our volunteers.”[4]

In the 1960’s, criticisms emerged regarding prisoner experimentation. Exploitation and coercion were the main accusations. Because most prisoners were rewarded, participation was also criticized as a means to escape just measures of punishment. In Dr. Sabin’s New Jersey State Prison experiment, volunteers were provided with a certificate for participating at the completion of the experiment, saying:

This is to certify that [name of volunteer] has voluntarily participated in experiments on Dengue, Phlebotomus (Pappataci or Sandfly), and related fevers which were carried out as a war time measure in an attempt to find methods and agents for the prevention of these diseases in the Army. During the period of experimentation he conducted himself well and recognition of this service is hereby accorded.[5]

On August 31st, 1944, the public in New Jersey took great interest in a certificate distribution ceremony. An official statement about the experiment was never released. When word spread from the publication of an inmate produced newspaper to the reporters of local newspapers about the experiment and the certificates, the public became intrigued and local reporters were present for the ceremony. Distorted reports of the frequency of sandfly and dengue fever in the armed forces resulted.[6]

It is interesting to note the parallels between Dr. Sabin’s work and the timeline of the development of modern medicine and experimentation in the United States. Since he had such a long and prolific career, he was engaged in nearly every phase of the radically changing medical science field. Prisoner volunteer based research was one of the many stops along the way in his successful medical career.

If you would like to learn more about medical ethics, you may want to take a look at a book by Sydney A. Halpern, a professor of sociology and medical humanities, called Lesser Harms: The Morality of Risk in Medical Research from the University of Chicago Press. Professor Halpern used the Sabin archives when researching certain aspects of the book.

[1] The Office of Health, Safety, and Security. Chapter 9: History of Prison Research Regulation. Accessed 29 December 2011.
[2] Letter from John R. Paul to Stanhope Bayne-Jones and Francis Blake, 17 March 1944. (Series #5- Military Service, Sub-Series Dengue, Box #15, Folder #3- Waiver and Release Form and Certificate of Service, 1944-1945.)
[3] Ibid.
[4] Letter from Albert B. Sabin to Stanhope Bayne-Jones, 14 July 1944. (Series #1- Correspondence- Individual, Box #2, Folder #1- Bayne-Jones, S. 1944-1959.)
[5] See Reference #2.
[6] Letter from Albert B. Sabin to Stanhope Bayne-Jones, 2 September 1944. (Series #1- Correspondence- Individual, Box #2, Folder #1- Bayne-Jones, S. 1944-1959.)

In 2010, the University of Cincinnati Libraries received a $314,258 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to digitize the correspondence and photographs of Dr. Albert B. Sabin. This digitization project has been designated a NEH “We the People” project, an initiative to encourage and strengthen the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture through the support of projects that explore significant events and themes in our nation’s history and culture and that advance knowledge of the principles that define America. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.