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Research or Torture Most Cruel: Hooker, the unborn and psychology


10 week old fetus kept alive via artificial comb (image credit: Life Magazine Sept. 10, 1965)

Psychology has a past which would never meet current standards of behavior. Four eminent, widely quoted and revered members of the profession have been touted for their work; Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, John Watson and, the least known to most psychologists, Davenport Hooker. In this article, I will deal with Hooker and a bit of the others. I will, in fact, do a review of a film made from Zimbardo’s most famous experiment, The Stanford Prison Experiment in Applaudience this week. I hope you’ll watch for it.


Hooker, a prominent non-MD medical researcher at the University of Pittsburgh from the 1930–1960s, is as a man who pushed the limits of research and who delved into the unethical in the extreme. His was not work aimed at the behavior of fully developed children, but the unfortunate living remains of aborted or miscarried fetuses. The means by which they obtained these fetuses is questionable since it involved, in at least 149 cases, major surgeries on Hooker’s behalf on unsuspecting women. The goal was to get a living abortus which Hooker could photograph and experiment on before “the spark of life went out (Time, May 2, 1938).


This excerpt can grasp the extent to which Hooker went to maintain his experiments from a paper in a medical journal:


Hooker’s first observations of human fetuses began in 1932 at Magee Hospital. For fetuses that showed any capacity for respiration (those of at least 23.5 weeks), Hooker performed observations over a warmed premature bed in the nursery, after clinical resuscitation when necessary. He kept these fetuses alive, even providing resuscitation when needed. The lack of empathy, the immortality and the dismissal of ethics is extraordinary. We have to ask ourselves what kind of man this was and how did anyone, much less a hospital, permit this.


An early enthusiast of photography, Hooker had motion picture cameras and equipment that he used to create a historical record of his experiments. These have remained as testaments, not to his work, but his brutality and lack of ethics in terms of the sanctity of life and of fetuses specifically.


However, even Hooker’s hubris was matched by another researcher at Stanford, Dr. Robert Goodlin who not only attempted to keep the fetuses alive, but opened their chests to view their beating hearts. Quoted in an issue of the Stanford Daily, Goodlin justified his work as “necessary to observe heart action and at other times to massage the heart.” You don’t massage a heart unless you are trying to keep it alive and that was Goodlin’s intent. Other researchers at Stanford immersed fetuses in saltwater to perform experiments. To the reader, all of this has to sound like something out of a Frankenstein film.


Such ghoulish behavior could not have possibly happened in American hospitals or at prestigious institutions of learning, but it did. Even the Life Magazine cover by Lennart Nilsson, allegedly, wasn’t a live fetus but that of a dead one positioned, lit and placed in a fluid to recreate one. Was it one fetus that had been, while still alive, packed in ice to and sent to a laboratory?

Reading his comments at a presentation before The American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, reported in the May 2, 1938 issue of Time, is chilling. As reported, here is the item:


The note of “admiration in his voice” might be compared to that of Dr. John Watson, the famous psychologist who in 1920 performed experiments on Little Albert also in the Pennsylvania area. Watson worked with the toddler to develop a conditioned fear response in him.

Once the experiment achieved its goal and Albert exhibited fright sought, Watson allegedly wrote about it in a 1930s psychology journal. In the article, he gleefully stated that once Albert was a man, and he encountered a woman on the street who wore a fur coat or collar, he would become anxious. A Freudian therapist would say, according to Watson, that he had repressed sexual desires for his mother, but Watson knew better. It would be his revenge on Freud.


Later reporting on the infant, however, revealed the entire experiment was a fraud. Albert was a sickly child who, according to reports, never walked or talked, may have had hydrocephalus and died a few years after the experiment. Watson didn’t care, married his research assistant and went on to a career in advertising in New York City.


The unethical and pompous behavior revealed in journal and newspaper articles didn’t cease with Hooker or Watson. Others would use human subjects in a cavalier manner, injecting them with epinephrine (Schachter, 1962), human cruelty Milgram (1963) and quasi-experiments Zimbardo(1971).


In the Zimbardo “experiment,” at least one, and possibly more, of the college-student participants had a psychotic break. The student, now a psychologist, said it was a manipulation on his part so he could go home to study for an important exam. Time and ambition have a way of changing memories, however.


Milgram also had reasonable-sounding justification for his work, which began as an earnest attempt to reason why the German populace did nothing when they knew Jews were being killed in concentration camps. Quoted in a Harper’s magazine 2010 article, he said:


I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.


What he didn’t show was that he tossed out the results gotten from women in the experiment when he discovered they wouldn’t be so willing to bow to the will of the “experimenter.” His published his book, Obedience to Authority, and it became an instant bestseller. Despite the increasing questioning of how the data was presented and the veracity of the conclusions reached, it is still used as a standard book in social psychology, albeit one that should be used with a proviso.


Milgram’s work and his journal articles and the book on the subject came under severe criticism when in 2013, after Milgram’s death in 1984, Gina Perry, an Australian psychologist questioned the results. Perry stated in an NPR radio interview:


“I think it leaves social psychology in a difficult situation. … it is such an iconic experiment. And I think it really leads to the question of why it is that we continue to refer to and believe in Milgram’s results. I think the reason that Milgram’s experiment is still so famous today is because in a way it’s like a powerful parable. It’s so widely known and so often quoted that it’s taken on a life of its own. … This experiment and this story about ourselves plays some role for us 50 years later.”


Today, much of what we once considered acceptable psychology research has been transformed. Students are no longer seen as easily obtained, albeit unwilling, participants for any research that a professor or graduate student is conducting. But is that true? Only the future will reveal the truth.

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DR. PATRICIA A. FARRELL