Robert Aronowitz Papers Detail Highly Dubious 1950's Research Study

Robert Aronowitz Papers Detail Highly Dubious 1950's Research Study

Mentally Ill Skid Row Alcoholics Used as Subjects

Two papers just published by LDI Senior Fellow Robert Aronowitz have, according to The New York Times, prompted medical historians to denounce a 1950s and '60s prostate cancer research project that used impoverished skid row alcoholics -- some of them mentally ill -- as its subjects. More than 1,200 men living in New York Bowery flophouses were used for the dubious and lengthy study.

Aronowitz, MD, said the project used "Bowery men because only desperate, poor, and unknowing men would participate. It was unimaginable that the average American man would volunteer."

Robert Aaronowitz
Robert Aronowitz, MD

Vulnerable men without symptoms
Begun in 1951, the Bowery study was aimed at determining whether biopsying the prostate glands of men without cancer symptoms and then aggressively treating those individuals found to have cancer could reduce the prostate cancer death rate.

Participants received a physical exam, X-rays, and various invasive tests, including a prostate biopsy that involved the removal of a sizable amount of tissue. Men whose samples were found to contain cancerous cells then underwent aggressive treatment, typically including the removal of the prostate gland and testes and administration of a synthetic estrogen.

Tuskegee comparison
In the Times article, a Harvard medical historian likened the situation documented by Aronowitz to the infamous Tuskegee experiment in which hundreds of poor black men with syphilis were left untreated to observe the natural course of the disease.

Aronowitz is both Professor and Chair of History and Sociology of Science at the Penn's School of Arts and Sciences, and of Family Medicine and Community Health at the Perelman School of Medicine. His two papers documenting the Bowery project simultaneously appeared in the American Journal of Public Health and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine.