How South Asian Women Were Subjects Of An Unethical Medical Experiment In 1960s England

How South Asian Women Were Subjects Of An Unethical Medical Experiment In 1960s England

Science is a remarkable human endeavor that has yielded profound advancements and innovations, leading to historic milestones in human civilization. In the field of medical science, with each passing day, we are inventing new solutions that are not only curing the deadliest ailments but also prolonging the longevity of human lives. However, it is essential to recognize that science can be a double-edged sword — the same scientific capabilities that have enabled such great achievements also possess the potential for deeply unsettling and horrifying ramifications.

One of the most grotesque aspects of science pertains to the history of unethical human experiments, where the spirit of scientific inquiry has been perverted to justify morally reprehensible actions. While infamous instances such as the Tuskegee syphilis study and the Nazi medical experiments stand as stark reminders of how the pursuit of knowledge can be distorted, as a result of systematic exploitation and targeting of vulnerable communities, there are several such cases that have not seen the light of day and are obscured from public knowledge by redacted and classified documents.

Today, we explore a heinous instance of unethical medical experiments on South Asian women in Coventry, England, carried out in the late 1960s. This occurrence was brought to light by a 1995 documentary, Deadly Experiments by filmmaker John Brownlow.

Pritam Kaur, along with a group of 21 Punjabi women from Coventry found themselves as non-consensual guinea pigs embroiled in a clandestine experiment that would forever alter their lives. Claiming to address the widespread issue of anemia among Asian women, the British Medical Research Council (MRC) initiated a study involving the administration of chapatis laced with radioactive iron salts. These researchers believed that the traditional South Asian diet was to blame for the widespread anemia. Kaur said that she had gone to her local GP with a complaint of experiencing migraines. It was then that the chapatis were suggested to her as a cure. They were purportedly designed to assess iron absorption, targeting a demographic known to grapple with post-menstruation iron restoration. The chapatis containing Iron-59, an iron isotope with a gamma-beta emitter, were dispatched to the participants' homes. These chapatis would be sent in the morning and a person would call them in the afternoon to check if they ate it. They would later be invited to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Oxfordshire to have their radiation levels assessed.

In the late 1960s, Danti Sohanta, Pritam Kaur's neighbor, had consulted a doctor for arthritis.

The doctor told her, "If you're put on a special diet, perhaps you'll get better". She believed him. You didn't question a doctor those days. After a few days on the diet, my mother was called to the 'hospital' for a blood test. My mother was a healthy woman. But I saw her wither away rapidly.

Sasha Kumar, Danti Sohanta's daughter, in an interview with India Today

Central to this troubling narrative is the issue of informed consent. The alleged subjects of this experiment, mostly non-English-speaking Punjabi women, found themselves in a disconcerting position. Defending the experiment, a spokesman for the MRC, Paul Fawcett, claimed that consent was obtained through a Gujarati-speaking health visitor accompanying the experimentation process. When the fact that these women were Punjabis and not Gujaratis was brought to attention, the MRC became defensive. The linguistic misalignment and cultural nuances underlying the MRC’s assurance challenge the legitimacy of such consent. Dr. Alice Stewart, a radiation expert from Birmingham University Medical School, underscored this concern in 1995 by suggesting that these women were effectively taken advantage of due to their linguistic limitations.

How South Asian Women Were Subjects Of An Unethical Medical Experiment In 1960s England
Attend An Exhibition Capturing The Trauma & Resilience Of Global Sikh Communities

What emerges from this unsettling affair is a disconcerting question of ethics in the context of cultural diversity. The MRC's assertion that the chapatis were administered to address iron deficiency appears reasonable on the surface, yet the selective targeting of a minority group raises valid concerns. This choice seemingly reflects a questionable assumption that expediency could justify the singling out of an ethnic community for experimental purposes. The specter of a "race angle" underscores the moral lapse in this approach, where the convenience of the researcher may have superseded ethical considerations.

In 1995, public outcry in the wake of the documentary prompted the MRC to establish an independent Committee of Inquiry. Furthermore, the findings of this committee, presented in 1998, emphasized that the human body can tolerate low levels of radiation within a specific threshold. Nevertheless, it acknowledged a dissenting perspective that contends any level of radiation inflicts significant damage to human DNA. The committee's conclusive remarks, while suggesting that the studies depicted in the documentary did not inherently exhibit ethical lapses, shed light on persistent apprehensions. These concerns revolved around issues of consent, comprehension in the context of granting consent, and the extent to which researchers acknowledged or factored in the associated risks.

The claims by the families of these South Asian women and Brownlow’s documentary resurfaced in public attention owing to a recent post on X (formerly Twitter). In the post, Taiwo Owatemi, the MP for Coventry in the West Midlands region of England, expressed her deep concern for the women and families impacted by the experiment and demanded a statutory inquiry into the medical research conducted during the 1960s.

It has ignited a firestorm of outrage and demand for accountability. The Coventry community, particularly those of South Asian descent, have been left aghast by this breach of trust. The assertion that a public inquiry is necessary in the modern era stands as a testament to the imperative of restoring faith in medical institutions and acknowledging the grievances of the affected communities.

It is noteworthy that after the passage of 26 years since the study, the most difficult question to address remains that of informed consent. The MRC has lost access to the roster of study participants. Despite a public appeal urging participants to step forward, the endeavor did not yield any fruitful outcomes.

In contrast to the heightened stringency of contemporary experimental protocols, the standards of yesteryears did not mandate written explanations for participants or the acquisition of their written consent.

This story of South Asian women unwittingly consuming radioactive chapatis not only exposes a grave ethical transgression but also serves as a stark reminder of the ethical complexities inherent in scientific research. It raises questions that extend beyond the immediate narrative—questions about the equitable treatment of diverse communities, the primacy of informed consent, and the duty of the scientific community to uphold ethical norms. While science holds immense promise for humanity, its capacity to be harnessed for horrifying purposes underscores the need for vigilant ethical oversight and a commitment to the principles of justice and human dignity.

Watch a snippet of Brownlow's documentary Deadly Experiments below.

You can also watch the full documentary below.

Related Stories

No stories found.