Karen Masterson: The Malaria Project and The Rise of Research Ethics

Today we’re talking to Karen Masterson, the scientific journalist who wrote The Malaria Project, a book detailing the history of the US government’s attempts to find a cure for malaria during World War II.

Karen discusses the role journalism plays in research ethics and how the scientific community’s treatment of human research participants has shifted dramatically since the 1940s. Play the podcast in the player below or download it to your computer, smart phone, or tablet. Or, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, listen on Google Play Music, or sign up to be notified when a new podcast is available.

A Shocking Discovery

Karen explains that during WWII, the military was losing massive amounts of troop strength to malaria – under some circumstances, the casualty rates were 30 times greater than those due to enemy fire. The military called on the scientific community to try to find a cure, and Karen came across those scientific papers.

Her research uncovered a letter from the National Research Council asking the Chief Public Health Officer for the state of Massachusetts if federal researchers could come in and give malaria to his schizophrenic and neuro-syphilitic patients in order to test new drugs for treatment.

Karen was inspired by this shocking discovery to develop a lengthy research program on the history of malaria research and research ethics and to write her book.

Understanding the Context

Karen knew the importance of understanding the context of what she had uncovered, so she went through over 500 archived boxes of documentation on the medical experiments of WWII.

This is how she found out that an Austrian psychiatrist won a Nobel Prize for infecting syphilitic patients with malaria and actually curing some of them of the syphilis.

Malaria in effect became a legitimate treatment for syphilis that also allowed doctors to study malaria. But it also became an excuse to infect patients – including those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder -- with malaria in order to get more clinical material; there were essentially no ethical standards in place due to the demands of war.

How Things Have Changed

The ad hoc process of treating patients not as people but as clinical material changed dramatically after the war, and standards in this country were vastly improved in the 1960s.

In fact, James Shannon, one of the lead investigators of the malaria project, went on to become one of leaders of the NIH and is credited with being one of the original thinkers on how to do things differently that led to the creation of the IRB.

However, Karen points out that research ethics and investigation usually comes about in response to a crisis, and that we could possibly see history repeat itself if we don’t maintain high standards for research ethics.