Bioethicists call for investigation into nutritional experiments on Aboriginals

August 22, 2013

Leading bioethicists say that the nutritional research on Aboriginals in the 1940s and 1950s that came to light last month, sparking an outcry from the Chiefs of First Nations and nationwide rallies, requires a comprehensive investigation.

The research “is of a piece with Tuskegee and other infamous research,” said bioethicist Michael McDonald, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. An investigation with “access to records that even historians can’t get hold of” is essential, he said.

Richard Sugarman, chair of the research ethics board at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario, also cited the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, during which United States government researchers observed African American men with syphilis for 30 years without providing treatment, to document the progress of the infection.

In Canada’s nutrition studies, government-sponsored researchers working with Aboriginals knew they were undernourished, “and they weren’t treating it,” said Sugarman. “Who knows what happened here?” he said. “There needs to be an investigation.”

The question now is: Who will conduct that investigation? The federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has the authority to investigate, but its five-year mandate expires in July 2014. “With the end date as it is, we will be very hard pressed to receive and review everything,” said commission spokesperson, Heather Frayne.

Several opposition members of Parliament have called for an extension of the commission’s mandate and the Manitoba Legislative Assembly passed a resolution in late July, calling on the government to extend the mandate beyond five years specifically to enable the commission to investigate the nutritional research.

It has long been known that students at residential schools were undernourished, but the nutritional research study was less known until historian Ian Mosby, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guelph, published a description of the experiments in the Journal of Social History.

Mosby was combing through federal records on nutrition policies and found that hundreds of Aboriginal adults and children were unknowingly test subjects in studies of nutritional supplements. The research began in 1942, when experts including Frederick Tisdall, the physician credited with inventing Pablum, travelled to Aboriginal communities in Northern Manitoba and documented the hunger there, describing certain individuals as “almost starved.” Tisdall and the other scientists tested the effect of vitamin supplements, giving riboflavin, thiamine or ascorbic acid supplements to 125 Aboriginals, while 175 served as controls. Mosby said he did not find any results from that study.

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