Editorial: Nutrition tests were unethical

The abuses in Canada’s Indian residential schools have been a stain on the country’s history, but the experiments carried out on unwitting children in the schools and on adults outside are staggering in their callousness.

It is not enough to say, as is often said in other cases, that times were different and we cannot judge previous generations by current standards. Even in the 1940s and 1950s, experimenting on people without their knowledge or consent was wrong. To do it to children was monstrous.

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Ian Mosby, a food historian from the University of Guelph, has uncovered documents showing that between 1942 and 1952, malnourished people were subjected to nutrition experiments at the Alberni Indian Residential School, five other residential schools across Canada and reserves in northern Manitoba.

The projects began in March 1942, when researchers descended on several northern Manitoba reserves. They were headed by Dr. Percy Moore, Indian Affairs Branch superintendent of medical services, and RCAF Wing Commander Dr. Frederick Tisdall, the co-inventor of Pablum, who was described as Canada’s leading nutrition expert.

The group was shocked by the level of malnutrition they found. They suggested that malnutrition was a major factor in the aboriginals’ susceptibility to disease; their rate of tuberculosis was 52 times higher than in the non-aboriginal population of Manitoba. They also suggested that many of the labels white people placed on First Nations, such as what they called “shiftlessness, indolence, improvidence and inertia,” could be symptoms of malnutrition.

But rather than fixing the problem, they designed an experiment to test their theories. They began a study of 300 people, giving nutritional supplements to one group and nothing to a control group.

Vitamins and minerals were relatively recent discoveries, and scientists were debating how much humans required. The team used the experiments to try to answer those questions.

“There are a number of indications that these kinds of scientific questions, more than humanitarian concerns, played a key role in defining the response to the nutritional deficiencies in aboriginal populations encountered by the researchers,” Mosby wrote.

They justified their work, which later expanded to a more ambitious study in James Bay, in part by arguing that healthier natives were less likely to transmit disease to white people and would be easier to assimilate into white society.

In the late 1940s, federal Nutrition Services Division director Lionel Pett, responding to decades of complaints about malnutrition in residential schools, began similar experiments.

At the Alberni school, students didn’t have enough milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables, and were deficient in vitamins A, B and C and iodine; they had the worst riboflavin deficiency of any of the six schools studied. Pett wanted to triple their milk consumption, which was well below recommended levels. But first he maintained the low ration for two years to get a baseline for comparison.

It was bad enough that students at a critical time of their growth were underfed by penny-pinching governments and churches, but to be deliberately denied adequate nutrition by an expert who had identified the problem was unconscionable.

Pett began his experiments in 1947, the year that the trials of the Nazi doctors ended with the enunciation of the 10 principles of the Nuremberg Code of human experimentation, the first of which is: “The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.”

Sadly, the Canadian researchers were not alone in ignoring the code in the decades after the war. Questioned late in life, Pett denied that his studies were unethical and said the findings were available to the schools to improve their nutrition policies.

The researchers designed their studies with obvious attention to scientific method and equally obvious disregard for the humanity of the people they were studying.

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