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Dr. Blood's Coffin

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In "Dr. Blood's Coffin" (1961), a brilliant young biochemist returns home from Vienna after quarreling with his mentor over the ethics of research with questionable effects on its live human subjects. When Peter Blood returns home to his village, he's tempted to continue his work using the local population, including his new crush's deceased husband.

Directed by Sidney J. Furie, this film raises ethical issues that are central to the practice of research science. At universities around the world, researchers working with human subjects are required to submit proposals for studies to an Institutional Review Board (IRB) or its equivalent. For the graduate student who wants to conduct a simple survey, the IRB gauntlet may seem like an unnecessary bureaucratic hoop, but the value becomes clear when one considers the horror stories of research conducted without such oversight and accountability for its impact on human participants.

In 1946, an American military tribunal prosecuted German doctors for war crimes and crimes against humanity for experimenting on concentration camp prisoners without consent. Two years later, the Nuremberg Code was established. It was the first international agreement formalizing the expectation that researchers must obtain consent and demonstrate that the benefits of their work will outweigh the risks. Unfortunately, the U.S. Public Health Service failed to get the memo and continued until 1972 with a research project in which hundreds of low-income, African-American males with syphilis were monitored--without being told by the researchers that they had this contagious disease. To make the situation even worse, the sick participants were not provided the cure that was found in the 1950s: penicillin.

Known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, this project is frequently cited as one key reason why ethics should never be compromised in the search for data--and is why we should shudder when Dr. Blood declares, "All supervision's ever done is hold me back!"

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