Human Experimentation in Public Schools: How Schools Served as Sites of Vaccine Trials in the 20th Century

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Schools have long been critical partners for public health authorities in achieving widespread vaccination. In the mid-20th century, however, public schools also served as sites of large-scale experiments on novel vaccines. Through examining the experimental diphtheria, polio, and measles vaccine trials, I explored the implications of using schools in this manner, as well as the continuities and discontinuities among the three cases. Common to all of them was that the use of schools brought decision-making into the public sphere, subjecting parents to social pressures and the influences of school officials and community members. However, the effects of using schools varied as well, as their social and institutional significance interacted differently with the narratives surrounding each disease, the public’s changing perception of medicine and science, and society’s changing values. These insights show not only the power of public institutions to influence opinions and perceptions, but also the subtle forces that one’s authority figures, peers, and community members may bring to a seemingly private decision-making process. These considerations are relevant to health interventions today, such as the complex debate over community consent in global health research. (Am J Public Health. 2018;108:1015-1022. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2018.304423)

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