Monday, November 11, 2013

FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND: An interview with Vicki Wittenstein

I'm delighted to be back on the blog to highlight this amazing non-fiction book by Vicki Wittenstein, FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND. It's a book that's scary, enlightening, and rich with detail. Here's Vicki:

Congratulations on the publication of FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND? Please give us a brief description of the book.

Thanks, Janet. Writing the book was a difficult and often emotional experience, and I’m thrilled that so many people are interested in the topic. The book traces the history of human medical experimentation from ancient times to the present through some of the greatest medical advances—but also its most horrifying medical atrocities.  Doctors performed thousands of experiments on orphans, prisoners, the mentally ill, and others with little power or voice, without consent. The subjects often suffered excruciating pain and humiliation, and some even died. And, as horrible as these experiments were, they were not comparable to the Nazi doctors’ torture and inhumane experimentation of concentration camp victims during World War II. Despite the laws and regulations in place today, problems continue with clinical trials, the pharmaceutical industry, genetic therapies, stem cell research, and DNA sequencing. The book raises many ethical questions, but primarily asks the reader how to fairly balance the rights of the individual versus the need for medical advancement. What price should we pay for medical knowledge and how can we learn from our mistakes in the past? 

I was pretty horrified as I read, learning about the number of experiments in which the subjects were uninformed. Was this a surprise to you as you did your research?

Absolutely. The U.S. government’s secret radiation experiments during the Cold War shocked me. I kept imagining how I would feel if I had been one of the 18 random hospital patients that doctors secretly injected with plutonium, or one of the 829 pregnant women at a Vanderbilt University clinic who drank a supposedly healthy drink doctors laced with radiation.

How much were you able to use primary sources? Did you meet many of the subjects and/or clinicians?

I used many primary sources, including articles written by a noted antivivisectionist in the early 1900s, material from the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, the final report on human radiation experiments from the U.S. Department of Energy hearings, newspaper clippings about various experiments, and the laws and regulations promulgated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Office for Human Research Protection (OHRP). I also interviewed several experts and bioethicists in the field, including Jerry Menikoff, M.D., Director of the OHRP.  

One of the most difficult interviews was with Eva Mozes Kor, a twin and survivor of Dr. Joseph Mengele’s experiments on twins at Auschwitz. I was nervous. I had never spoken to a Holocaust survivor before, let alone someone who had been a victim of brutal experimentation. But Eva quickly put me at ease. Her story of survival is remarkable, and her honest voice provided an authentic way for me to discuss painful and inhumane experiments with young adults.

I also spoke to Joshua Shaw, the brother of Simeon Shaw, a four-year-old boy who was flown to the U.S. from Australia for treatment, but instead was injected with plutonium. Joshua Shaw told me that his family never recovered from what happened to Simeon. 

It’s clear that without some of these experiments we would not have made medical advancements, and you clearly felt torn at times between what is ethical and what is beneficial. Can you discuss?

I think people are uncomfortable with human medical experimentation. In general, we don’t like the idea of using people as guinea pigs. Yet, without a doubt, new medical discoveries and technologies require human experimentation. Although laws and regulations now govern appropriate human experimentation and the horrifying examples from the past would not occur today, violations still occur and people are injured. The difficult challenge lies in balancing the individual’s risk of injury with the needs of society.

Do you feel there is a line that should not be crossed, regardless of the results?

Definitely. The Common Law mandates three ethical principles:  respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. These standards basically mean that all subjects must give voluntary and informed consent; the harm to subjects must be limited; and subjects must represent a diverse group of people, regardless of race, economic class and ethnicity. Every researcher must strive to follow these laws.  

I think we must never let the ends (scientific advancement) justify the means. As Eva Kor wrote in a personal account of the Nazi experiments, “The scientists of the world must remember that the research is being done for the sake of mankind and not for the sake of science: scientists must never detach themselves from the humans they serve.”

Much of this is also the domain of science fiction and horror. I’m playing with that kind of scenario now in a work in progress. Can you talk to fiction writers about addressing these issues?

When you write about horror, whether truth or fiction, a close first person account can help draw the reader into your story. The brutal facts and emotions speak for themselves, and there isn’t much need for descriptive details. It’s ‘show don’t tell’ with a chilling and creepy effect. Good luck on your project!

Thanks so much!

Thanks for hosting me, and for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts.

VICKI ORANSKY WITTENSTEIN has always been curious about new ideas, people, and places. That curiosity has taken her life in many different directions.  So far, she has been a student, a criminal prosecutor, a writer, and an advocate for children and families.  She is the author of a number of science and history articles for young readers, as well as the book Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths, which won the 2013 Science Communication Award from the American Institute of Physics.  She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York. For more information, and for a free discussion guide, visit

Follow her blog tour!

blog URL
Mon, Nov 4
Tues, Nov 5
The Prosen People
Thurs, Nov 7
The Nonfiction Detectives
Fri, Nov 8
Growing with Science
Mon, Nov 11
Ms. Yingling Reads
Tues, Nov 12
Through the Wardrobe
Wed, Nov 13
Kid Lit Frenzy
Thurs, Nov 14
Fri, Nov 15
The Fourth Musketeer


Vicki said...

Janet, thanks for your thoughtful interview. I hope people enjoy the book!

Janet Fox said...

My pleasure, Vicki! It's a fabulous book.