For the Good of Mankind? — Review

September 24, 2013

Thanks to NetGalley, I got a chance to read For the Good of Mankind?: The Shameful History of Human Medical Experimentation by Vicki Oransky Wittenstein.

For the Good of Mankind explores the history of human medical experimentation and the resultant changes in medical experiment regulations. While one wouldn’t necessarily expect a book with this topic to be purely objective, it is abundantly clear from the subtitle alone that it takes a very subjective view. I was hoping to see an examination of the medical advances that have come out of this suspect practice, but much of that information was overshadowed by the descriptions of heinous acts performed by doctors and scientists in the name of science. In short — the coverage of material did not feel particularly balanced.

The book moves in chronological order, starting with some of the earliest cases of human medical experimentation and moving through the WWII and atomic bomb eras and on to modern times and current concerns with research oversight and stem cell experimentation.

The chronological organization is not readily apparent and in many cases it feels as though any advances made as a result of the experiments are negligible, which was not always the case. The book has a critical thinking section at the end that encourages readers to think about and discuss the actions of researchers in light of the possible outcomes, but critical thinking is not possible when a balanced view is never presented.

I am in no way in favor of such heinous human experimentation, but I find it peculiar that Wittenstein offers up such a biased view for “criical thinking.” For example, she talks about the harvesting of cancerous cells from Henrietta Lacks and their use in any number of experiments, but doesn’t go into detail about the role that HeLa cells have played in the cures and vaccines for countless debilitating diseases. This would be a great case for critical thinking prompts as Henrietta Lacks did not provide informed consent, however one could argue that the harvesting of her cells during her surgery also did not cause her any additional harm. And yet, Wittenstein barely touches upon this in the book.

For the Good of Mankind could work as an introduction to the seedy history of the medical research field and some critical thinking for readers able to discern that the book does not provide a  balanced perspective, but I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone.

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