May 24, 2024

Austrian historians studying another informed consent debacle from the 50s

Another informed consent scandal from the 1950s: researchers deliberately infected hospitalised children with malaria.

There seems to be an unending trickle of revelations from the 1950s and 1960s about the practices of doctors who still had not learned the Nuremberg Code. The latest comes from Vienna, Austria, where researchers deliberately infected hospitalised children with malaria in the hope of finding a cure for syphilis.

An historical commission began studying the issue in 2012. It appears that between 1955 and 1960 about 230 orphaned children at the Hoff Clinic, at the Vienna University Clinic for Psychiatry and Neurology, were experimented on without their consent. Afterwards the injection the children had high fevers for two weeks and for another 20 years experienced intermittent fevers. No one appears to have died from the treatment. A complete report will be submitted next year. 

Malaria therapy for syphilis may sound peculiar, but in 1927, in the days before antibiotics, Austrian psychiatrist Julius Wagner-Jauregg received a Nobel Prize in Medicine for refining the technique. He and others observed that high fevers killed the malaria parasite. This saved the patient from general paralysis and “idiocy”, but left him with fevers. However, these could be treated with quinine, so the risk seemed acceptable.

Michael Cook
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