“Doctors injected orphans with live polio and tuberculosis, they subjected African American slaves to numerous surgeries without anesthesia, and they gave pregnant women drinks laced with radiation. The mentally ill, prisoners, women and children—powerless people without a voice—”
Terrifying and enlightening, Vicki Oransky Wittenstein’s new non-fiction release For the Good of Mankind? holds you on the edge of your seat. Her talent at using individual stories of suffering and loss to give us a picture of humanity, and man’s inhumanity to man, pose ethical dilemmas readers won’t soon forget. I couldn’t wait to get her author’s perspective on the experience of writing this crucial book.
Because the tone and subject matter is such a departure from her first book, Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths, I was curious to know how her writer’s journey differed this time around. Below, Wittenstein talks about handling the horrific research, moving from writing a single story to one that encompasses all of mankind, and how this book changed her own perspective. She tackles these questions with humor and sincerity, reminding us it takes courage to write, and to face our demons, whether in writing, or in life.
Vicki Oransky Wittenstein: Zu, thanks so much for inviting me to talk about my new book. I was just re-reading the interview you posted when my first book Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths was published, and I was struck by how dissimilar the writing experiences were for the two books. The biggest difference of all? This time I didn’t have a reason to travel to Hawaii!
Kidding aside, in many ways that trip to Hawaii marks a crucial difference in the two books. The story of planet hunting was very much about the life of Geoff Marcy, the astronomer who first figured out how to detect planets that orbit stars beyond our sun. Young readers were hooked on the science by “seeing” Marcy at work in the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. For the Good of Mankind? on the other hand, tells the story of not just one person, but the thousands of people throughout history who have been subjected to painful and unethical medical experimentation. Although the beginning of each chapter recounts a personal tragedy, the huge time period covered (from ancient times to the present) necessitated the use of a broader lens. In turn, the many examples helped emphasize the magnitude of the problem.
Indeed, the sheer number of instances throughout history where people have been injured from medical experiments shocked me. One of the most difficult challenges was limiting and choosing the examples to write about. Reading the details of the experiments upset me, too. Doctors injected orphans with live polio and tuberculosis, they subjected African American slaves to numerous surgeries without anesthesia, and they gave pregnant women drinks laced with radiation. The mentally ill, prisoners, women and children—powerless people without a voice—were subjected to experimentation without consent. People were humiliated, injured, and some even died.
In addition to all these disturbing tragedies, I had to figure out how to write about the most gruesome and inhumane experiments of all: those performed by Nazi doctors on concentration camp inmates during World War II. I was worried. How could I write about these experiments without them seeming like just one more awful example, when they were so clearly in a category of their own? In reading about Dr. Joseph Mengele’s experiments on twins at Auschwitz, I learned about a twin survivor, Eva Mozes Kor, who was willing to talk to me. Her story was so compelling that it became the basis for an entire chapter. Eva’s personal account and the authenticity of her voice help young people fathom the inhumanity of the experiments.
Most importantly, readers also needed to understand that many of these medical experiments occurred hand-in-hand with great medical achievements. Without a doubt, new treatments, medicines, and cures depend upon human medical experimentation. How can we conduct experiments without losing our moral footing? How do we balance the risks to individual subjects versus society’s need for new treatments and cures? Today there are laws and regulations that protect subjects, but they can be difficult to implement. These questions, which I raise throughout the book, continue to be debated, particularly now with increasing numbers of clinical trials by the pharmaceutical industry, genetic therapies, stem cell research and the sequencing of the genome.
Young people today will be the next generation of leaders in science, health care, government, and law. They will be continually bombarded with ethical and moral dilemmas that will challenge their core beliefs. I hope this book helps them question what is right and wrong, and inspires them to never forsake their principles in the name of science.
Vicki Oransky Wittenstein is author of the award winning non-fiction book Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths (Boyds Mills Press 2010) and the new release For the Good of Mankind? (Lerner 2014). A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, she’s written numerous science articles for young readers, is an advocate for children and families, and a former criminal prosecutor.