Skip to content Skip to navigation

They served without weapons: World War II conscientious objectors service as "human guinea pigs"

Conscientious Objectors + CPS Alternative service for conscientious objectors

In 1940, an act of the U.S. Congress created Civilian Public Service for men who were conscientiously opposed to serving in the military. The intent was to organize "work of national importance under civilian direction," so conscientious objectors (COs) could give meaningful alternative service.

When the United States entered World War II, it was hoped the COs would be able to work in war zones. During World War I, conscientious objectors had served close to the fighting front in France, carrying out agriculture projects and helping rebuild villages, sometimes under German shelling and air raids. In World War II, the American Friends Service Committee wanted to send COs to China to carry out medical and relief work close to the front lines. Unfortunately, a hostile congressman attached a rider to an important military bill, prohibiting work abroad for all U.S. conscientious objectors.

Initially, "work of national importance" included road building and reforestation projects. As the war continued, an opportunity was offered to conscientious objectors to participate in scientific experiments as "human guinea pigs." This gave COs the opportunity to prove themselves ready to serve in dangerous situations that would not require taking human life. The U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development and the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General conducted most guinea pig experiments, which fell into three major areas: disease, nutrition, and exposure to abnormal environments.

Conscientious Objectors + CPS The "human guinea pig" experiments

More than 20 experiments were undertaken, but this article will describe only a sampling. Since many ships carrying supplies and equipment to the British Isles were being sunk, a lifeboat experiment was established to determine whether it was possible for humans to drink a small amount of seawater without endangering their health.

There was also an experiment to establish the kind of rations that would be most beneficial to those who were adrift at sea for extended periods of time. Some of the guinea pig participants were involved in determining the effects of dehydration, which required them to spend 12 hours a day in Boston Harbor—six hours on the raft and six hours in the water. This was to determine how to cut down on the amount of liquid lost from the body by exposure to the elements. Many interesting results were garnered from this particular experiment. For instance, it was recommended to the government that the old emergency rations be eliminated and a simple ration of candy be substituted, composed of 80 percent glucose and 20 percent fats.

Another experiment related to wartime conditions was the typhus, or "louse camp," effort. Men in this project were asked to wear lice-infected clothes for a three-week period. It was determined from this that two powders were safe and effective in preventing lice for a week. These were recommended for trial in controlling lice on soldiers and civilians in typhus fever areas. The formulas for several of the powders tested were never made public. Although DDT was being developed at this time and was later widely used, it was never determined if the louse camp experiments were involved. Perhaps that is just as well, considering the environmental damage done by extensive use of DDT during the war and in years following.

The University of Minnesota, the Brethren Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, and the AFSC jointly sponsored one of the experiments. This experiment focused on feeding and nutrition. The men who were chosen as guinea pigs had first been fed a standard diet. They were then put on a protein-deficient diet based on bread and potatoes—the foods eaten by many Europeans at the time. Finally the men were fed a rehabilitation diet, consisting of foods typical of relief feedings. The researchers discovered that it takes more than filling peoples' stomachs to help them recover from a deficient diet. Starvation has profound psychological effects on personality and emotions, and a long, complex recovery is required.

Other experiments carried out at this time focused on influenza, jaundice, motion sickness, heat/humidity and diet, cold and diet, protein replacements, and frostbite.

A number of CPS volunteers who were trained and experienced in research were assigned as technicians and laboratory research assistants. One of those who assisted in medical research at Yale University died of poliomyelitis. The assistant director of the polio project said of this individual, "The very real aid that he has been in carrying on this battle against polio is one of the better stories of CPS work. I know of no better example of work and sacrifice. He did, in reality, lay down his life that others might live."

—Written by Jack Sutters, former AFSC archivist

Your gift matched!

Become a Partner for Peace monthly donor by August 31, and a generous donor will add $100 to your first month’s gift. You’ll also get a free AFSC tote bag! Partners for Peace make monthly donations to bring critical support to communities worldwide, meet urgent needs in times of crisis, and with people acting with courage to overcome oppression.

Give Now →