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The Occasional Human Sacrifice: Medical Experimentation and the Price of Saying No


Shocking cases of abusive medical research and the whistleblowers who spoke out against them, sometimes at the expense of their careers.


Join Barry Lam (Philosophy) in conversation with Carl Elliott (Philosophy, University of Minnesota) about Dr. Elliott's forthcoming book, The Occasional Human Sacrifice.


Sponsored by the Being Human Initiative at the Center for Ideas & Society


About the book:


The Occasional Human Sacrifice is an intellectual inquiry into the moral struggle that whistleblowers face, and why it is not the kind of struggle that most people imagine.


Carl Elliott is a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota who was trained in medicine as well as philosophy. For many years he fought for an external inquiry into a psychiatric research study at his own university in which an especially vulnerable patient lost his life. Elliott’s efforts alienated friends and colleagues. The university stonewalled him and denied wrongdoing until a state investigation finally vindicated his claims.


His experience frames the six stories in this book of medical research in which patients were deceived into participating in experimental programs they did not understand, many of which had astonishing and well-concealed mortality rates. Beginning with the public health worker who exposed the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and ending with the four physicians who in 2016 blew the whistle on lethal synthetic trachea transplants at the Karolinska Institute, Elliott tells the extraordinary stories of insiders who spoke out against such abuses, and often paid a terrible price for doing the right thing.


About the author:


Carl Elliott (MD, PhD, Philosophy, University of Minnesota) is the author of Better than Well and White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine. His scholarship has been in two areas. The first area concerns wrongdoing in medicine, especially in the areas of clinical research and pharmaceutical marketing. The second concerns philosophical issues surrounding identity, authenticity and justice as seen through the lens of biomedical technology. He also has longstanding interests in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the novelist Walker Percy. 


Dr. Elliott has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award, a resident fellowship at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy, the Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History in the Kluge Center of the U.S. Library of Congress and a Weatherhead Fellowship at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. His work has also been supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health. In addition to papers in academic journals, he has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. In 2003-04, he was invited to lead a year-long bioethics seminar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

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  • Trish Powers
  • Laura Luna

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