Grayed illustration of a shirtless man turned to their side.

Any day now the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services may decide to turn back the clock to a time when doctors went unchallenged, medical investigators could do no wrong, and vulnerable people were grist for the research mill.

Last summer, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a controversial report recommending the return of federally funded medical research to our nation's prisons. Propelled by historical amnesia and corporate greed, a resurgence of such research may do much harm.

Although Tuskegee (black sharecroppers), Fernald (orphans), and Willowbrook (retarded children) are infamous examples of how medical researchers exploited vulnerable populations, prisoners were scientists' guinea pigs of choice during the 20th century.

Prisoners across the country were routinely incorporated into dangerous medical experiments that were unthinkable for other populations: testicular transplants and radiation studies, injections of live cancer cells, dioxin slatherings, and exposure to psychotropic chemicals and mind-control agents. University of Pennsylvania researchers set up labs inside Holmesburg Prison for easy access.

Commercial interests, the military and the CIA were behind many of these dubious initiatives. It wasn't until the late 1970s...