Tag Archives: Experimentation

Is it ethical to experiment on a condemned man?

with respect to the experiment whether Yellow fever can be communicated after the vaccine, which you propose should be tried on some malefactor [criminal], no means of trying that are likely to be within my power. during the term I have been in office, not a single conviction in any capital case has taken place under the laws of the general government. the Governors of the several states would have it most in their power to favor such an experiment.
To Edward Rowse, August 4, 1805

In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about diseases that ravaged the nation in Thomas Jefferson’s time. This post is a repeat of August, 22, 2016.

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Rowse wrote to Jefferson speculating on the connection between four diseases: cowpox, smallpox, plague and yellow fever. The smallpox vaccine had already proved effective against that disease and the cowpox. There was some speculation that it worked against the plague. Rowse wanted to know if it might also protect against yellow fever.

To that end, Rowse suggested an experiment be conducted on someone already condemned to die and asked Jefferson’s help. The President declined, not on moral grounds, but for lack of a subject. During his Presidency, no one had been convicted of a capital offense under federal law. Those convictions occurred under state laws. He suggested governors might be able to help Rowse with his experiment.

“I am pleased to give Patrick Lee my highest recommendation as a speaker.”
Executive Director, Wyoming School Boards Association
Invite Thomas Jefferson to speak. Call 573-657-2739
NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.
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There is ALWAYS a reason to explore, regardless of the results.

If mr Peale can succeed in producing fresh from salt water by a filtering apparatus, it will be a valuable discovery. there are parts of the world where a want of pure water may render the separation of impurities by filtration of value, provided they are better separated, or more cheaply, than by distillation. but besides the utility of the immediate discovery, no discovery is barren. it always serves as a step to something else.
To Robert Patterson, April 17, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders encourage experimentation, regardless of results.
Patterson (1743-1824, compared to Jefferson, 1743-1826) was a noted Irish-born mathematician, scientist, and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He was one of Meriwether Lewis’ tutors, at Jefferson’s request, before the young man headed up the Missouri River with William Clark in 1804.
Here, Jefferson commented on another scientist’s (Charles Willson Peale) efforts to desalinate ocean water. He lauded the experimentation, because it might prove cheaper than distillation, the only other method available.
While Jefferson hoped for an immediate application, he would not be dismayed if that did not happen. He was noted for taking the long view. “No discovery is barren,” he wrote. “It always serves as a step to something else.”

“…your contribution to our Annual Education Workshop …
added immeasurably to [its] success …
Assistant Director of Education, Missouri Department of Corrections
Mr. Jefferson will add to the success of your meeting, and hopefully, immeasurably so.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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