A medical researcher from Columbia University, Dr. Perry Hudson, made the skid row alcoholics in Lower Manhattan an offer: If they agreed to surgical biopsies of their prostates, they would get a clean bed and three square meals for a few days, plus free medical care and treatment if they had prostate cancer.
It was the 1950s, and Dr. Hudson was trying to prove that prostate cancer could be caught early and cured. But he did not warn the men he was recruiting that the biopsies to search for cancer could cause impotence and rectal tears. Or that the treatment should cancer be found — surgery to remove their prostates and, often, their testicles — had not been proven to prolong life. But he said in a recent telephone interview that he believed the treatments did prolong life. “I told them the cure rate is extremely high,” he said.
As more than 1,200 men living in flophouses on the Bowery signed up for Dr. Hudson’s study in the 1950s and ’60s, neither his academic peers nor the federal officials overseeing his grants criticized his ethics, but times have changed. Two papers published on Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine prompted medical historians to denounce this largely forgotten chapter in the history of government-financed medical research on vulnerable populations.
They said the Bowery study was unethical, because of both the powerlessness of the people who participated in it and the things done to them.
“The invasiveness of this particular research was really horrendous,” said Alan Brandt, a Harvard medical historian who has written about the Tuskegee experiment, in which hundreds of poor black men with syphilis were left untreated to observe the natural course of the disease, a study that began in 1932 and was not halted by the United States Public Health Service until 1972.
Dr. Robert Aronowitz, an internist and medical historian who wrote the new papers, stumbled upon the Bowery study — which was led by Dr. Hudson, a urologist trained at Johns Hopkins, and paid for by the National Institutes of Health, among others — and was so troubled by it that he became consumed with documenting what had happened.
“Hudson used Bowery men because only desperate, poor, and unknowing men would participate,” Dr. Aronowitz wrote. “It was unimaginable that the average American man would volunteer.”
Dr. Hudson’s colleagues did not question his use of down-and-out men with alcoholism, some of them mentally ill, or his failure to carefully inform them of the potential risks of his research, said Dr. William Parry, a urologist at the University of Rochester at the time.