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Human Subject Research and Medical Ethics in Colonial Southeast Asia


This project is a comparative study of human subject research in colonial Southeast Asia in the period 1890-1962. While the most (in)famous instances of medical scientists conducting unethical experiments on human beings took place in Nazi Germany and the United States, advances in medicine more broadly relied on research on non-consenting human subjects – often in colonial contexts. Doctors in the Dutch, British and American colonies in Southeast Asia too did medical experiments that discounted the well-being of their research subjects but the region also has some of the earliest examples of informed consent. This project will be the first to study these practices.

The key objective of the project is to define and explain the different ethical practices in human subject research in colonial Southeast Asia. To achieve that objective the project aims (1) to understand the nature and reveal the scope of human subject research in Southeast Asia, and (2) to conceptualize the ethical regimes in the colonies in order to explain differences between ethical decisions of doctors in diverse socio-cultural settings. To bring these issues into the present, the project also (3) examines the afterlife of colonial medicine in the postcolonial world to explore how the legacy of medical research could be used ethically today. The project’s hypothesis is that the changing context of colonial politics, research infrastructure, religious beliefs, professional (tacit) codes – what I call the ethical regime – together with local circumstances, explain these changes.

The project has a novel, anthropologically grounded approach and a three-way comparative method that includes comparisons between the Dutch East Indies, British Malaya and the (American) Philippines, and between colonies and their metropoles but also traces change over time. As such, we aspire to gain insight in why human subject research has become unethical in some circumstances and less so in others.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 500 000,00
2311 EZ Leiden

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West-Nederland Zuid-Holland Agglomeratie Leiden en Bollenstreek
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 500 000,00

Beneficiaries (1)