The Lice-Infested Underwear Experiment

During World War II, the US government was concerned about lice. Groups of people living in close quarters under primitive conditions (as in war) were an invitation to lice, which could spread typhus. In 1942, the government partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to conduct an experiment to test various anti-lice preparations, headed by public health physician Dr. William A. Davis and entomologist Charles M. Wheeler. They needed lice and volunteers to be infested with them. Finding the lice was no problem, but finding volunteers was tricky. They first paid homeless people for their time, but found they were unreliable and would not follow instructions.

Eventually Davis and Wheeler hit upon conscientious objectors (COs) as potential guinea pigs. The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 allowed young men with religious objections to fighting to serve their country in alternative, nonviolent ways. At first they were put to work domestically at jobs such as building roads, harvesting timber, and fighting forest fires. But in 1942, inspired by the example of the British government, it occurred to U.S. officials that these young men were also a potential pool of experimental subjects for research, and they began to be made available to scientists for this purpose.

In theory, the COs were always given a choice about whether or not to serve as guinea pigs. In practice, it wasn't that simple. Controversy lingers about how voluntary their choice really was since their options were rather limited: be a guinea pig for science, or do back-breaking manual labor. But for their part, the COs have reported that they were often eager to volunteer for experiments. Sensitive to accusations that they were cowardly and unpatriotic, serving as a test subject offered the young men a chance to do something that seemed more heroic than manual labor.

Surprise: the volunteer guinea pigs were not paid for their scientific efforts, and therefore continued to do manual labor during the experiment. Read the details and results of the lice-infested underwear experiment at Weird Universe. -via Strange Company

(Image credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine via Flickr)

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