The Guinea Pigs of Oakholme Road: Pacifism and Medical Research in Wartime Sheffield
David Saunders | 15 January 2019
◇ Modern History | British History | Local History | Medical History
At 4.30am on Saturday 8 March 2008, South Yorkshire Police arrived at Oakholme Hall, a 30-bed student residence in Broomhill, Sheffield, and began dispersing the 300-strong crowd gathered outside. As the Sheffield Telegraph reported later that week, what had started as a low-key house party had, due to some unwisely chosen privacy settings on Facebook, been gate-crashed by “hundreds of drunken revellers”.
The ensuing fracas, which resulted in ten arrests, nine on-the-spot fines, and numerous complaints from local residents, led Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Sheffield Professor Paul White to denounce those students who would “bring the good name of the university... into disrepute” and threaten expulsion for those who continued to flout rules of conduct. In response to White’s comments, Students’ Union President Mark Willoughby stressed that the party was an outlying incident and instead pointed to those students who conscientiously contributed to the local community, including “over 1,000 [who] are involved in voluntary work across the city.”
Willoughby’s appeal to voluntary work in an attempt to rehabilitate the tarnished reputation of Sheffield’s student population in 2008 provided a fortuitous call-back to the little-known place of Oakholme Road in the history of medicine and warfare. It was next door to Oakholme Lodge, at 18 Oakholme Road, that the Sorby Research Institute (SRI) was founded in December 1940. Although today merely another student hall, during the Second World War the building functioned as a site of unprecedented medical experimentation on human volunteers drawn from Sheffield’s community of pacifists and conscientious objectors (COs). Over the following six years, these ‘human guinea pigs’ would subject their bodies to infectious diseases, deficient diets, shipwreck simulations, stab wounds, and even bouts of malaria and scurvy.
To understand why pacifists would volunteer for these unpleasant tasks, it is necessary to consider the ambiguous position of COs in 1940s Britain. Whereas the well-publicised brutality inflicted on COs during the First World War generated a great deal of sympathy and solidarity, the comparative tolerance shown to their successors in 1939 caused something of an existential crisis for many in the pacifist community about how best to serve humanity and resist war.
This anxiety was particularly pronounced among young, university-age pacifists whoincreasingly rejected overly ‘intellectual’ and ‘academic’ forms of protest and instead promoted more practical, grounded, and physical kinds of war work such as agricultural labour, humanitarian relief, and medical aid. As well as being spurred on by their political beliefs, this drive towards more taxing kinds of labour was shaped by the mockery and scorn often directed towards university-educated pacifists by military tribunals and the local press. Comments regarding the application of Richard Charles Clarke, a 20-year-old student at the University of Sheffield, for exemption from military service, were typical. “You are receiving your education from the State, and you are not prepared to do anything in return,” the tribunal chairman concluded, before registering Clarke for military service against his wishes.
From this perspective, serving as a ‘human guinea pig’ made perfect sense: it offered the young, eager pacifist a form of labour that was constructive and humanitarian, but at the same time offered painful and unpleasant trials through which they could prove their bravery and commitment. The SRI’s experiments, therefore, offered a rare opportunity to improve their standing within the local community from mere tolerance to (at least grudging) respect.
It was with this hope in mind that volunteers signed-up for the first major experimental programme at the SRI: a series of trials designed to investigate the transmission of scabies, an infectious skin disease caused by parasitic mites which had been rising in incidence since the late 1930s. These experiments required the volunteers to adopt a range of transgressive behaviours: wearing dirty military uniforms, sleeping naked between soiled bedsheets, and even sharing beds with infected soldiers. By presenting these unusual labours as vital to the protection of national health, the volunteers were able to overcome suspicion and distrust about their CO status to secure praise from local newspapers, gain sympathy from tribunal panels, and even reconcile with previously estranged family members.
Many of these benefits were short-lived, however. In the later years of the war, a shift towards less ‘exciting’ nutritional experiments, which largely required volunteers to adopt monotonous diets for months and even years a time, restricted the SRI’s capacity to transform maligned pacifists into unlikely wartime heroes. As such, when the SRI closed in February 1946 to make way for “a student hostel”, many of the volunteers returned to their pre-war lives with little more to show for their efforts than disrupted careers, diminished finances, and compromised bodies. Nevertheless, for a short time, the house on Oakholme Road provided a space where a young, marginalised group could remake its public image against a backdrop of hostility and suspicion. Future party-throwers, take note.
David Saunders is a PhD student at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. His research focuses on medical experimentation and the politics of citizenship in wartime Britain.
For an overview of the SRI, see Kenneth Mellanby, Human Guinea Pigs (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1945).
See Martin Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945: The Defining of a Faith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 301-305.
“Pacifist Tells Tribunal He Loves Hitler,” Sheffield Telegraph, 24 November 1939, p.6.
See Kenneth Mellanby, Scabies (London: Oxford University Press, 1943).
See E.M. Hume and H.A. Krebs, Vitamin A Requirement of Human Adults: An Experimental Study of Vitamin A Deprivation in Man (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1949); W. Bartley, H.A. Krebs and J.R.P. O’Brien, Vitamin C Requirement of Human Adults: A Report by the Vitamin C Subcommittee of the Accessory Food Factors Committee (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1953).