Let’s take a look now at the history of medicine and science over the course of the last 200 years. Please note that this timeline is not exhaustive, and only represents a selection of events relevant to the theme of ‘Atonement’.

Collection #1: 1840, Vaccination Act Passed in Great Britain

Anti-vaccination sentiment is far from new. Vaccination began in the early 1800s when Edward Jenner introduced his smallpox vaccine. As soon as the Vaccination Act was passed in 1840, which made it compulsory for infants to be vaccinated against smallpox during their first three months, anti-vaccination protests began. Wild claims were being made about vaccines causing cancer, vaccines only existing as a result of conspiracy by the medical establishment, and more. These protests intensified in the 1870s when the law was changed to punish officials who did not enforce the 1840 act. A large number of anti-vaccination books and journals appeared during the 1870s-80s, including: the National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination Reporter (1874), and the Anti-Vaccinator (1869).

More information can be found in this BMJ article.

Images 1, 2 & 3: Early anti-vaccination propaganda. (sourced here, here and here)

Image #4: The ‘Vaccination Monster’ (sourced here)

From the BMJ: “A mighty and horrible monster, with the horns of a bull, the hind of a horse, the jaws of a krakin, the teeth and claws of a tyger, the tail of a cow, all the evils of Pandora’s box in his belly, plague, pestilence, leprosy, purple blotches, foetid ulcers, and filthy running sores covering his body, and an atmosphere of accumulated disease, pain and death around him, has made his appearance in the world, and devores mankind —especially poor helpless infants—not by sores only, or hundreds, or thousands, but by hundreds of thousands (vide Vaccinae Vindicia: 413, 423).”

Image #5: A young female patient receives a vaccination. (sourced here)

Collection #2: 1940s, Wartime Experimentation

1. Japan, 1939-1945

Unit 731, a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army, undertook lethal human experimentation during WWII. It was one of two biological warfare research centres at the time, led by Lieutenant-General Ishii Shiro. As it was a clandestine operation, there is no complete list of experiments undertaken by the unit. The unit was infamous for its vivisections, particularly the infection of humans with the plague and anthrax, then subsequently eviscerating them without anaesthesia to determine the impact of the disease on human organs. Other experiments included:

  • locking prisoners inside pressure chambers to see how much the body could tolerate
  • exposure to cold until their limbs froze off in an effort to determine how best to treat frostbite
  • tying prisoners to stakes outside and testing biological weapons such as plague cultures or bombs filled with plague-infested fleas
  • testing of poison gases
  • administration of supratherapeutic doses of tetanus vaccine

At least 3000 prisoners died from the experiments performed by unit 731 between 1939 and 1945. No prisoner that entered the gates of the unit emerged alive. The weapons developed by the unit killed or injured an estimated 300,000 people. (Images sourced here, here, here and here)

2. Nazi Germany, 1933-1945

Under the Nazi regime in Germany, practices of killing and human experimentation became classed as ‘medical procedures’ as they were performed by licensed doctors. 7% of German doctors became members of the Nazi Party; a list of Nazi doctors can be found here. The experiments were conducted on prisoners in concentration camps, largely Jewish people from across Europe, and other minority groups including Soviet PoWs, homosexuals, and german people with physical disability.

The experiments conducted can only be described as medical torture. The aim of the experiments were multifaceted; to help military personnel in combat situations, to develop new weapons, and to advance the racial ideologies promoted by Hitler and the Third Reich. Experiments included:

  • sewing twins together in attempts to make ‘conjoined twins’
  • removal of sections of bone, muscle and nerve without anaesthesia
  • injection of bacteria directly into the bone marrow
  • multiple repetitive headstrikes using a mechanized hammer
  • exposure to extremes of temperature
  • intentional infection with various organisms including the malaria parasite, the hepatitis viruses, tuberculosis, typhus, yellow fever
  • deliberate exposure to mustard gas
  • deprivation of all food and drink other than seawater
  • sterilization using x-rays, intravenous solutions containing silver nitrate
  • blood clotting experiments, where prisoners were given a medication then intentionally shot through the chest, or limbs amputated without anaesthesia

The atrocities performed by doctors under Nazi rule culminated in the formation of the Nuremberg Code, a set of research ethics principles for human experimentation at the Nuremberg Trials. (Images sourced here, here, here and here)

Collection #3: 1960, The Thalidomide Disaster

Hailed as one of the darkest episodes of pharmaceutical research history, the thalidomide scandal has had a lasting impact on the way in which drugs are developed, tested and distributed.

Thalidomide (trade names Distaval, Softenon, Contergan), a sedative and hypnotic drug, was marketed as an anti-emetic to treat morning sickness. When it was approved, physicians assumed the placenta was impervious to drugs ingested by the mother. Additionally, drugs were not tested in animal models prior to approval for human use.

Over the few years Thalidomide was in widespread use in Australia, Europe and Japan, about 10,000 children were born with phocomelia (malformed limbs). Australian gynaecologist and obstetrician from Sydney, Dr William McBride, was one of the first doctors to report the connection between thalidomide and these birth defects.

Thalidomide was developed and marketed by german pharmaceutical company Chemie-Grunenthal that is still operational today (despite the huge damage inflicted, the judicial nightmare that ensued after the drug was withdrawn ended with the offenders walking free). Grunenthal finally apologised for the Thalidomide disaster over a century later, in 2012.

Read more about the Thalidomide disaster here. Read more about other drug recalls in history here. (Images sourced here, here, here and here)

Collection #4: Disturbing Experiments

  • The Milligram Experiments, a series of psychological experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, that utilised electric shocks at near fatal levels (sourced here)
  • Willowbrook hepatitis experiments; mentally disabled children housed at the Willowborook state school in Staten Island, were intentionally given hepatitis in an attempt to track the development of the viral infection (sourced here)
  • MKultra experiments, also known as the CIA mind control program, had the purpose of identifying and developing mind control procedures to use during interrogation. (sourced here)
  • 1945, Plutonium trials; injection of plutonium into human subjects here
  • Dr Bender, a child psychiatrist began her electroshock treatments at Bellevue Hospital on children whom she diagnosed with ‘autistic schizophrenia’ (sourced here)
  • Prison experiments; Dr Leo Stanley, a stern eugenicist, at San Quentin prison conducted a series of unethical medical experiments on prisoners (sourced here)
  • Stanford prison experiment; a social psychology experiment that intended to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison officers. (sourced here)
  • The Three Identical Strangers study was a twin study where identical triplets were separated at birth and raised in different families to investigate the nature vs nurture paradigm. (sourced here)

Collection #5: 1980s, Modern Anti-Vaccination Campaign

1980s: Global anti-vaccination activism is reborn!

  • 1998: British medical journal, The Lancet, published a paper by gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield , that speculated that there was a connection between receipt of the MMR vaccine and the development of autism. Despite having a small sample size (n = 12) and a terrible design, the paper gained huge publicity and MMR vaccination rates began to drop. The paper was based on fraudulent data and was subsequently retracted in 2010. Dr Andrew Wakefield has been stripped of his medical licence.

Read more about the history of the anti-vaccination movement, and the controversy about Wakefield’s paper.

Image 1: A child gets involved with modern anti-vaccination protesting. (sourced here)

Image 2 (February 2019): People gather in Washington in protest of a proposed bill that would remove parents’ ability to claim philosophical exemption to opt out their school-age children receiving the MMR (sourced here)

Image 3: A photo of disgraced and fraudulent gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, who published a paper in the Lancet based on falsified data that claimed links between the MMR and autism. (sourced here).

Comprehensive Timeline

  • 1818: James Blundell performs first successful human blood transfusion
  • 1846: Nitrous oxide first used as an anaesthetic
  • 1853: First successful abdominal hysterectomy completed
  • 1856: Binaural stethoscope invented
  • 1861: Louis Pasteur discovers anaerobic bacteria
  • 1865: Joseph Lister introduces phenol (carbolic acid) as disinfectant in surgery
  • 1870: Koch and Pasteur develop the germ theory of disease (sourced here and here)
  • 1874: Pasteur suggests sterilising instruments by placing them in boiling water
  • 1876: Koch identifies anthrax bacillus
  • 1882: Cholecystectomies first introduced
  • 1890: First DTP vaccine developed
  • 1895: Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovers X-rays
  • 1896: First device for measuring blood pressure invented
  • 1903: William Einthoven describes the first ECG
  • 1928: Sir Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin
  • 1930: First successful sex reassignment (male-to-female) surgery performed in Dresden
  • 1935: First lobotomy performed in Lisbon hospital by portugese neurologist, Egas Moniz
  • 1945: First vaccine developed for influenza
  • 1946-1949: Nuremberg Trials and the signing of the Nuremberg Code, a set of research ethics principles for human experimentation created at the end of WWII.
  • 1959: In vitro fertilisation (IVF) invented
  • 1960: First combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP)
  • 1961: Thalidomide scandal
  • 1964: Declaration of Helsinki signed in Finland; a set of ethical principles regarding human experimentation developed for the medical community by the World Medical Association
  • 1967: Dr Christian Bernard performs the first human heart transplant
  • 1967: Last trans-orbital lobotomy performed
  • 1975: First CT scanner invented by Robert S Ledley
  • 1980: Smallpox eradicated
  • 1983: HIV first identified
  • 1985: Kidney dialysis machine invented
  • 1988: The Alder Hey organs scandal; the unauthorized removal, retention and disposal of human tissue from 850 infants, culminating in the establishment of the Human Tissue Act (2004)
  • 1991-1995: Bristol heart scandal; in 5 years, 34 children under one year of age died after cardiac surgery due to a lack of leadership and accountability, staff shortages, an ‘old boys culture’, a lax approach to safety, and a lack of monitoring of performance. An additional 30 children were left with permanent neurological damage.
  • 1996: Dolly the sheep becomes the first clone
  • 2000: Draft of the Human Genome Project complete
  • 2006: First HPV vaccine is approved


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