Victims of 1939 research escape legal quagmire

Iowa’s Supreme Court ruled 4-3 late last month that victims of a controversial, 66-year-old study could sue the University of Iowa, citing the state’s own legislation as support for its decision.

The 1939 “Monster Study,” as the experimenters came to call it, was led by a professor and graduate student who hypothesized that children would stutter if they were told they had stuttering problems, said Steve Parrott, Director of University Relations at the University of Iowa.

According to the Sept. 30 decision, Tudor and Johnson tested their hypothesis on six orphans who did not stutter prior to the experiment. Tudor concluded that as a result, the subjects had lost self-confidence, self-image and self-esteem as well as the ability to speak normally.

The orphans were young at the time of the study and probably did not remember it, Parrott said.

The subjects learned of the study in 2001 from the San Jose Mercury News, and the case was brought to the district court two years later.

The university and other Iowa public institutions were protected from lawsuits until 1965 under the state’s common law doctrine of “sovereign immunity.” The doctrine was challenged in the state’s Supreme Court in 1964, but it was not until a tort reform law was enacted the following year that the state’s immunity to lawsuit was eliminated.

Bob Brammer, a spokesman for the state attorney general, said the state’s position regarding its immunity is a “legal point” that it will continue to push as the case continues to be heard in the courts.

“We’ve asked the Supreme Court to rehear that matter and that’s the status as of now,” he said.

After the details of the study were released in 2001, Dr. David Skorton, then University of Iowa Vice President for Research and Interim Vice President for University Relations, issued a statement saying that the university since 1939 has put in place “a strict policy and procedures to insure the safety of all humans in research.”

Parrott said that nothing has needed to be done since 2001 because rules to stop the sort of experimentation that came from the “Monster Study” were adopted in the mid-1960s and early 1970s.

“The University of Iowa has scrupulously followed those rules since that time,” he said.

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