The Bowery Bum has long been a symbol of urban dissolution: a 1931"composite profile" in The New Yorker titled, aptly enough, "Bowery Bum," noted of its subject, John McGoorty, "The extent of his drinking is regulated entirely by his income. Fortunately, it is small." By the 1970's, the largely homeless alcoholics of this lower Manhattan thoroughfare — once, a country road used by Dutch farmers —  had become a symbol of New York's decline. But it turns out the Bowery Bum had another role in history: unwittingly helping in the fight against prostate cancer.

According to recently uncovered research, during the 1950s, the urologist Perry Hudson conducted biopsies on the homeless drunks of New York's so-called Skid Row, promising treatment and some temporary sustenance in return for whatever medical insights he could gain. Though the experiment may have had a worthy goal, it seems to have gone far beyond the bounds of medical ethics.

Writes science reporter Gina Kolata of The New York Times:

It was the 1950s, and Dr. Hudson was trying to prove that prostate cancer could be caught early and cured. But he did not warn the men he was recruiting that the biopsies to search for cancer could cause impotence and rectal tears. Or that the treatment should cancer be found — surgery to remove their prostates and, often, their testicles — had not been proven to prolong life. 

The transaction seems to have been a brutally simple one: the ailing men of the Bowery got food and shelter, as well as treatment. Hudson, in turn, was allowed to treat them like guinea pigs. Certainly, this seems abhorrent today; one of the authors of the above papers said that "Hudson used Bowery men because only desperate, poor, and unknowing men would participate," while a medical historian told The Times that Hudson's experiment was "really horrendous."

It was, perhaps. But it was not alone in its ignominy. For four decades started in 1932, researchers allowed African-American in the South men to suffer with syphilis in the notorious Tuskegee Experiment. And the cell line of a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, Henrietta Lacks, was propagated for cancer research without, until very recently, the knowledge or consent of her family. And in an 1949 experiment called Green Run, the Atomic Energy Commission released radioisotopes from a plutonium production facility in eastern Washington State to see how it would disperse through the atmosphere. 

Moreover, even people who know the risks are willing to submit themselves to medical trials that could potentially save lives. For example, during the AIDS epidemic, activists demanded that the Food and Drug Administration speed up its clinical trials — the hopes of a treatment outweighed its dangers, these activists reasoned. A similar mentality can be found in cancer medicine, where it can take more than a decade to bring a drug to market. One does not have be ignorant of medical risk to take it.

So while Hudson did may be utterly inexcusable, it is understandable in light of our desperation to defeat cancer at virtually any cost. And yet his experiments on the men of the Bowery "yielded little credible data," The Times notes. Not that Hudson has any regrets, telling the newspaper that his subjects were lavished with "the best care in New York." Few, if any, of those subjects remain to dispute his claims.