Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

COMET. Human Subject Research and Medical Ethics in Colonial Southeast Asia

Investigating epistemic and ethical practices in medical experimentation on humans in the colonial period in Southeast Asia.

2023 - 2028
Fenneke Sysling
ERC Starting Grant ERC Starting Grant
A bottle of Salvarsan, a promising new medicine in the 1910s. Image: Science Museum Group Collection.

The COMET project is a study of ethical practices in human subject research in colonial Southeast Asia (ca. 1890-1960), with the Dutch East Indies, British Malaya and the American Philippines as comparatives cases. Colonial physicians in this period pursued research on all sorts of diseases, from leprosy to beriberi, and local people took part in this research as research subjects. We aim to understand the scope and nature of these experiments, the ethical considerations of doctors at the time, and patients’ responses.


The project will first explore the full range of medical human subject studies in Southeast Asia. How many people were involved? How dangerous and intrusive were these experiments? For example, when a cholera vaccine was tested on 24 inmates of the Bilibid prison in the Philippines in 1906, 13 men died. But when new medicines such as Salvarsan were introduced, patients also demanded it from doctors, even though it was in an experimental phase and the side effects were not fully known.

A second objective is to study the moral world of doctors at the time. For example, how did schooling and (religious) upbringing influence normative practices? To what extent did physicians refer to individual harm versus the greater good? To what extent did distance from Europe or distance from the centres of colonial authority (and the lack of oversight) lead to ‘offshoring’ ethics? How did local actors such as patients influence doctors’ decisions?

The third objective brings our historical work up to the present. The aim here is to understand the afterlives of colonial medical knowledge and to explore tools to address this heritage. While medical research in Southeast Asia ended with the end of empire and was continued by Southeast Asian doctors, data, concepts, material and photographs from the colonial era continue to be used. The project will reflect on the continuing presence of data, human remains and photographs from the colonial past and explore the ways in which we can use this heritage responsibly.

Vaccine production at the Pasteur Institute, Bandung. Image: Wereldmuseum.

Communicating risks and benefits: vaccination and local responses in the American Philippines. By Bianca Claveria.

Testing new medicines. What can the practice of medicine testing in colonial Malaysia and Indonesia tell us about the ethics of doctors and the role and reaction of patients? By Caroline Schep.

Ethical Regimes in colonial Southeast Asia. This project will compare and contrast cases from British Malaya, the American Philippines and the Dutch East Indies to define their ‘ethical regimes’. By Fenneke Sysling.



Read the COMET Blog on Medium: https://medium.com/@comet_51334

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