Thursday, July 18, 2013

Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research And Human Biomedical Experimentation In Aboriginal Communities And Residential Schools, 1942–1952

The full-text of the paper that everyone is talking about can be found here.  The researchers do not come off as being quite as reprehensible as they seem in media reports.  For example, there appears to have been some effort to use their research to refute common stereotypes:

It is not unlikely that many characteristics, such as shiftlessness, indolence, improvidence and inertia, so long regarded as inherent or hereditary traits in the Indian race may, at the root, be really the manifestations of malnutrition. Furthermore, it is highly probable that their great susceptibility to many diseases, paramount amongst which is tuberculosis, may be directly attributable to their high degree of malnutrition arising from lack of proper foods.

But there is also little question that these scientists found that having a handy group of malnourished people around was a good way of advancing their own research goals.  For example:

It was in this context that, starting in 1947, [Lionel Bradley] Pett began planning an ambitious research project using Aboriginal students as experimental subjects. Before he became the director of the Nutrition Services Division in 1941, Pett was already a well-respected scientific researcher and was the co-author of a pioneering nutritional survey of low-income families in Edmonton. He was therefore not simply aware of the divisive postwar debates among Canada’s leading nutrition experts and scientists concerning human nutritional requirements but was, in fact, a key player in these debates.52 To this end, the seemingly intractable situation in Canada’s residential schools provided Pett with an unprecedented scientific and professional opportunity. Without necessary changes to the per capita funding formula for the schools, there was little likelihood that the students’ nutritional status would improve in any meaningful way. This meant that the schools had become, through decades of neglect by Indian Affairs, a possible laboratory for studying human requirements for a range of nutrients as well as the effects of dietary interventions on a group of malnourished children.


From the perspective of Tisdall, Kruse, and the other nutrition experts involved in the study, it was clear that the levels of malnutrition witnessed at Norway House, Cross Lake, and other communities visited in 1942 were a tragedy, but also an unprecedented research opportunity. This was because, even as late as the 1940s, nutrition was still a relatively young area of scientific inquiry. Scientists only really began to understand the function of vitamins and minerals during the interwar period, and most experts readily admitted that much of  their understanding of human nutrition was based upon animal studies and had not been put to the test on human subjects in any rigorous or controlled manner.20 The late 1930s and early 1940s were also the formative period for Canada’s nutrition professions. The Canadian Council on Nutrition (CCN), an advisory body made up of the nation’s leading nutrition experts, was formed in 1938, and the Nutrition Services Division of the Department of Pensions and National Health was created in 1941 under the leadership of biochemist and medical doctor Lionel Bradley Pett, largely in response to public warnings by the CCN that upwards of 60 per cent of Canadians were suffering from some form of vitamin or mineral deficiency. While such dramatic claims brought nutrition experts into the public spotlight during the war, scientists readily admitted – to one another, at least – that they still knew very little about the relative effectiveness of vitamin and mineral supplements on malnourished populations, let alone the precise vita-min and mineral requirements of human beings. Debates over this latter issue, in particular, would lead to major internal divisions within the profession by the late 1940s and meant that experts like Tisdall and Pett were eager to test their theories on actual human subjects.

There are a number of indications that these kinds of scientific questions, more than humanitarian concerns, played a key role in defining the response to the nutritional deficiencies in Aboriginal populations encountered by the researchers. 


The experiment therefore seems to have been driven, at least in part, by the nutrition experts’ desire to test their theories on a ready-made “laboratory” populated with already malnourished human “experimental subjects.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that the settlement of Attawapiskat bulks large in the research.  That poor little town can't catch a break, and apparently never could.


wilson said...

The experimentation began under the Liberal govt of William Lyon MacKenzie King and was continued in he 50's by Liberal Louis St Laurent.
Trudeau and Paul Marin should climb down off heir high horses.

wilson said...

"The reports of these studies, in which more than a thousand indigenous children were denied essential nutrition and in some cases deliberately starved, were reported as far back as 2000 but did not gain national attention."

Chretien/Martin did not investigate the claims back in 2000, yet Martin insists that Harper does now.
Not that previous Conservative govts are blameless, but isn't it time the Libs owned up to the misery their govts caused First Nations and stop blaming Harper...?