"The Malaria Project: The U.S. Government's Secret Mission to Find a Miracle Cure"

Oct 27, 2014

On this edition of ST, we speak with Karen M. Masterson, a journalist turned malaria researcher, whose new book is "The Malaria Project: The U.S. Government's Secret Mission to Find a Miracle Cure." It's a remarkable and sometimes unsettling story of science, medicine, and war -- at once illuminating and surprising, the book also explores the ethical perils of seeking treatments for disease while ignoring the human condition. As was noted of this historical exposé by a Publishers Weekly book critic: "Journalist Masterson offers a careful blow-by-blow of the 'Manhattan Project-style program to find a cure for malaria.' After stumbling on a 1943 letter from a prominent New York doctor urging the government to save American soldiers by trying malaria drugs on insane syphilitics, Masterson set out to learn more. She interned with Bill Collins, a scientist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who had served with the Public Health Service when it tested anti-malarials in the 1950s and 1960s. Masterson uncovered a wealth of unsavory behavior from top doctors helping the government stamp out malaria during WWII and beyond. Asylum patients and prisoners in Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee, and Illinois were used as guinea pigs; given both the disease and experimental drugs. Previously-untried anti-malarials were also given without consent to Peruvians who had contracted the disease naturally. The author notes the irony of Nuremburg Trial prosecutors grilling doctors about war crimes that included giving malaria -- then experimental anti-malarials -- to Dachau prisoners, 'having no way of knowing that Americans were employing very similar research techniques.' Masterson's [account] is a thorough and important assessment of an under-reported and ethically-suspect period in U.S. medical history."