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From the cradle to the grave

By John Murray - posted Tuesday, 14 August 2007

There is one group in society so powerless, that its voice has not been heard. The abuses its members experienced should make all of those arguing about rights, morality, power, and the separation of Church and State, in the debate on stem cell research, sit up and take notice.

Its members are the victims of the lack of church and state separation in past medical experimentation in this country. They are the children who lived in child welfare institutions and were used as real life “lab rats” in the pursuit of medical breakthroughs.

This little known history makes the debate about the rights of embryos appear farcical, tragic and hypocritical. For while great ideals about intents to do public good are being argued, with each side claiming the moral high ground, the protagonists in the debate are ignoring the fact that they have carried out dangerous tests on unsuspecting and helpless children.


Together, they engaged in experiments that were against the moral codes not just of our society, but against standards of behaviour codified in international law after the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

The public also has a right to know of the horrible things that were done to promote the greater good of our society; just as it has a responsibility to see that the victims are properly recognised, properly treated, and importantly, compensated for the harm done to them when it was decided to promote our best interests ahead of theirs.

An opportunity to make amends for the institutional abuse of these children has already passed. In the late 1990’s the nature of these experiments came to public attention through The Age newspaper. Although The Age gave this issue extensive coverage, neither the Federal nor the Victorian government held an inquiry.

The first recorded experiment on orphans, involving smallpox inoculation, was carried out by Assistant Surgeon to the Colony John Savage in NSW in 1803. The following experiments were conducted since the formulation of the international Crimes Against Humanity laws, and the Nuremberg Code, and invariably breached them.

A known list of the experimental agents run through the orphanages of Australia since the Nuremberg Trials include vaccines for diphtheria, whooping cough, herpes, polio, influenza, measles, rubella, quadruple antigen, and human pituitary hormones. It is also thought the testing of antipsychotic medications, anti-rejection medications (for use in organ transplants) and psychosurgical procedures were perfected in child welfare institutions before “going public”.

One of the experiments disclosed in 1997 was a 1950’s trial of a vaccine for the sexually transmitted disease herpes. Eighty-three babies aged six to eight months old had been infected with the disease when the experimental agent was found to be worthless. Despite infecting so many babies the researchers dryly concluded, “the vaccination was of no benefit in preventing primary herpetic infection under the conditions of this study”.


Another experiment that came to light was a test on 350 infants up to three years of age. These children were injected with full adult doses of an experimental influenza vaccine, despite the researchers knowing that the vaccine was likely to have more toxic effects on the children than on adults.

At that time these experiments were finally revealed to the public: the church, the state, and the medical-research fraternity joined forces against their victims to deny that any wrongdoing had occurred. This was despite a public call for a major inquiry by Australia’s foremost medical research body, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), itself involved in Orphanage experiments. In the Australian Medical Journal the NHMRC unambiguously declared that “these trials were not carried out in a moral vacuum”.

Despite the lessons of Nuremberg, International Law, informed by the atrocities of the Nazi’s medical research practices, seemingly had no moral or legal effect on researchers in Australia. Experiments continued to be carried out from the period after World War II up until the mid 1970s.

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This article draws on material from a chapter in a book being researched by John Murray, and regular On Line Opinion contributor Bernie Matthews, that will examine the remarkable history of institutional child abuse in Australia.

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About the Author

John Murray was the recipient of the HREOC Human Rights Award (Community, Individual) 2004 for his work around the institutional abuse and neglect of children in care. He was a member of the NSW Health Ministerial Advisory Committee on Post Mortem Procedures following the Walker Inquiry into Glebe Morgue, and presently sits on the Taskforce advising the NSW Minister for Community Services on the feasibility of organ donations from children who die in the care of the state.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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