Hepatitis Studies at Willowbrook

Willowbrook State School was once the largest state-run mental institution in the U.S, housing over 6,000 intellectually disabled patients. You may have heard of the deplorable conditions that lead to its closing in 1987–overcrowding, disease and physical/sexual abuse. What you may not know is that Willowbrook was the site of one of the longest-running unethical human experiments in American history; one that involved mentally handicapped children.

Early on, there was a high rate of Hepatitis A among Willowbrook patients due to filthy living conditions. Instead of viewing it as a major human rights violation, researchers seized the opportunity to test their Hepatitis A vaccine on unwitting children. Kids were fed fecal extracts taken from other infected patients, resulting in development of Hepatitis A. This practice was defended with the excuse that “they would’ve gotten it anyway.”

The enrollment process was also highly unethical. For years, children were only granted a bed in the hospital on the condition that their parents enrolled them in the hepatitis tests. There was no other way to enter but through the hepatitis unit.

The study spanned 14 years, lasting from 1956 to 1970.

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