Timeline of Events

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1932-1972 Syphilis Study at Tuskegee

More information may be found in:

  • Brandt, AM. 1978. Racism and Research: The Case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Hastings Center Report 8(6): 21-29 , and in
  • Jones, JH. 1993. Bad Blood: Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Rev. ed. New York: Free Press
1939-1945 Nazi Medical War Crimes

More information may be found in: Annas, GJ, and Grodin, MA. 1992. The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremburg Code, Human Rights in Human Experimentation. New York: Oxford University Press.

1944-1974 Cold War Human Radiation Experiments

The U.S. Government conducted more than 400 experiments to determine the effects of exposure to ionizing radiation on human health or to calibrate instruments designed to detect radiation. Most studies involved minimal risks and most of those involving greater than minimal risks included appropriate informed consent.

There were, however, cases where human subjects suffered physical injuries as a result of participating in studies that offered no prospect of direct benefit, or from interventions that were considered controversial at the time that were presented as standard practice.


See http://www.hss.energy.gov/healthsafety/ohre/ for more information.

1946 Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial

The individuals who conducted Nazi experiments during WWII were tried separately from other war criminals because of their professional status as physicians and the horrendous and unique nature of their crimes. They were found guilty of “crimes against humanity.”

See http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/references/nurcode.htm for more information.

1947 Nuremberg Code

During the trial at Nuremberg, the judges codified fundamental ethical principles for the conduct of research. The Nuremberg Code set forth ten conditions to be met before research could be deemed ethically permissible. The Nuremberg Code became the first international standard for the conduct of research and introduced the modern era of protection for human research subjects.

1947 American Psychological Association

The American Psychological Association began to develop a code of Ethical Standards that included issues in human subjects research.


See http://www.apa.org/ethics/index.aspx for more information.

1948 United Nations adopted Universal Declaration of Human Rights
United Nations logo.

The United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was inspired by atrocities committed during World War II and states the conviction that human rights needed to be preserved at the international level.

See http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html for more information.

1953 First U.S. Federal Policy for Protection of Human Subjects

The first U.S. Federal policy for the protection of human subjects was put into place for research conducted at the Clinical Center, NIH. This policy provided a mechanism for prospective review of proposed research by individuals having no direct involvement or intellectual investment in the research. This system is the model for the current IRB system.

1963 Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital Study
Photograph of a nurse and patient at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital in New York.

Studies were undertaken at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital in New York to develop information about the human immune system’s response to cancer. Live cancer cells were injected into chronically ill and debilitated patients who were told they were receiving a skin test. The investigators were eventually prosecuted and found guilty of fraud, deceit, and unprofessional conduct.

1963-1966 Willowbrook Study

Studies were carried out at the Willowbrook State School for “mentally defective persons,” to gain an understanding of the transmission of infectious hepatitis and, subsequently, to test the effects of gamma globulin in preventing or ameliorating the disease.

Residents of Willowbrook, all of whom were children, were deliberately infected with hepatitis, by ingesting the stools of infected persons or receiving injections of more-purified virus preparations. The investigators maintained that hepatitis infection was inevitable for this population; however, critics asserted that the consent process was unethical because coercive tactics were employed as only children whose parents gave permission to participate in the studies were admitted to Willowbrook.

1964 Declaration of Helsinki

The World Medical Association drafted the first international agreement recommending ethical standards for clinical research.

The most recent version of the Declaration of Helsinki, in addition to translations of the Declaration into languages other than English, can be found on the WMA Web site.

Like the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration makes informed consent a central requirement for ethical research. The Declaration does, however, allow for surrogate consent when the research subject is incompetent, physically or mentally incapable of giving consent, or a minor. The Declaration, which has undergone multiple revisions, also states that research with these groups should be conducted only when the research is necessary to promote the health of the population represented and when this research cannot be performed on legally competent persons.

1966 Henry Beecher’s Publication
New England Journal of Medicine Logo.

Henry Beecher published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine describing 22 cases of human subjects research that involved ethical violations. Beecher argued against increasing regulations and in favor of responsible investigators. His perspective has been cited as influencing Federal policy to outline general requirements for informed consent and to delegate specific standards to local review processes.

1974 Federal Protections for Human Subject

After the Syphilis Study at Tuskegee was exposed, the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources held hearings on this study and other alleged health care abuses. The outcomes of these hearings were:

  1. The enactment of the National Research Act of 1974 requiring the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to codify its policy for the protection of human subjects into regulations; and
  2. The formation of the National Commission for the Protections of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which drafted the Belmont Report.
1979 The Belmont Report

The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research issued Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research. This is the cornerstone document of ethical principles and HHS regulations for the protection of research subjects based on respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.

See http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/guidance/belmont.html for more information.

1980 Publication of the FDA Regulations
Food and Drug Administration Centennial logo.

FDA established regulations for clinical research: Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Part 50.

The FDA regulates research involving products regulated by the FDA, including research and marketing permits for drugs, biological products, and medical devices for human use, etc., whether or not HHS funds are used. If HHS funds are used in FDA-regulated research, the research must be compliant with both HHS and FDA regulations. More information about the FDA regulations and FDA-specific requirements can be found at http://www.fda.gov/.

1981 HHS & FDA Revise Regulations

In 1981, with the Belmont Report as foundational background, HHS and the Food and Drug Administration revised, and made as compatible as possible under their respective statutory authorities, their existing human subjects regulations.

1982 CIOMS Guidelines
Council for the International Organization of Medical Sciences logo.

The Council for the International Organization of Medical Sciences (CIOMS) published the International Ethics Guidelines for Biomedical Research Involving Human Subjects (CIOMS Guidelines). These guidelines are designed to assist investigators from technologically advanced countries to conduct ethical research involving human subjects in resource-poor countries. These 15 guidelines addressed issues including informed consent, standards for external review, recruitment of subjects, and more. For further information about CIOMS and the Guidelines, refer to http://www.cioms.ch/

1991 Publication of the Common Rule

The Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects or the “Common Rule” was published in 1991 and codified in separate regulations by 15 Federal departments and agencies

See: http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/commonrule/index.html for more information.

1993-1994 Revelation of Human Radiation Experiments

President Clinton established the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments to investigate human radiation experiments during the period 1944 to 1974; examine cases in which radiation was intentionally released into the environment for research purposes; identify ethical and scientific standards for evaluating these events; and deliver recommendations to the Human Radiation Interagency Working Group. The Committee recommended government apologies and financial compensation in cases where:

  • Efforts were made by the government to keep information secret from these individuals, their families or the public to avoid embarrassment or potential legal liability, and where this secrecy had the effect of denying individuals the opportunity to pursue potential grievances
  • There was no prospect of direct medical benefit to the subjects, or interventions considered controversial at the time were presented as standard practice, and physical injury attributable to the experiment resulted

See http://www.hss.energy.gov/healthsafety/ohre/roadmap/achre/index.html for more information

1995 Establishment of The National Bioethics Advisory Commission

The National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) was established to promote the protection of the rights and welfare of human subjects in research, identify bioethical issues arising from research on human biology and behavior, and make recommendations to governmental entities regarding their application. The NBAC term ended in 2001.

1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act Privacy Rule cover.

In response to a congressional mandate in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued the regulations Standards for Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information. For most covered entities, compliance with these regulations, known as the “Privacy Rule”, was required as of April 14, 2003.

The Privacy Rule was enacted in response to public concerns over potential abuses of the privacy of health information. Implementation and oversight of the Privacy Rule are the responsibility of the HHS Office for Civil Rights. Additional information about how the Privacy Rule impacts research can be found at http://privacyruleandresearch.nih.gov and at http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/privacy/

1999 The Death of Jesse Gelsinger
Symbol representing a gene with text: Gene Therapy.

On September 17, 1999, 18 year-old Jesse Gelsinger became the first subject in a gene transfer clinical trial to die from a reaction to a recombinant viral vector. Jesse suffered from a deficiency of ornithine-transcarbamylase (OTC), a necessary enzyme, and enrolled in a Phase I dose-escalation trial at the University of Pennsylvania. The clinical trial involved the injection of an adenoviral vector containing the gene. Jesse died after receiving the injection.

Subsequent investigations found that the Principal Investigator was an inventor for the technology used in the trial and held equity in the start-up company to which the technology was licensed. This case brought significant attention to the issue of financial conflicts of interest in research. Additional information about financial conflict of interest can be found on the NIH Conflict of Interest (COI) Page. The HHS regulations governing conflicts of interest, “Responsibility of Applicants for Promoting Objectivity in Research for Which PHS Funding is Sought”, can be found at 42 CFR 50, Subpart F.

2000 The Office of Human Research Protections
Department of Health and Human Services logo.

The Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) was elevated to the level of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, replacing the NIH Office for Protection from Research Risks (OPRR). The OHRP provides leadership for all 17 Federal agencies that carry out research involving humans under the Common Rule regulations. The Office has regulatory authority for the protection of human subjects in research and policies and procedures for Institutional Review Boards.

To learn more about OHRP, visit http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/

2004 The Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections

The Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections (SACHRP) was established to provide expert advice and recommendations to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Assistant Secretary for Health on issues and topics pertaining to or associated with the protection of human research subjects. See www.hhs.gov/ohrp/sachrp.