Wartime conscientious objectors were human guinea pigs in Sheffield research

The building where the human guinea pig experiments took place in Sheffield
The building where the human guinea pig experiments took place in Sheffield

During the Second World War, Sheffield became a leading centre of research into the parasitic disease scabies.

This was a major problem, which threatened to compromise the effectiveness of the fighting and home workforces.

Norman Proctor and other volunteers working outside at the Sorby research institute

Norman Proctor and other volunteers working outside at the Sorby research institute

An estimated two to three million people were affected in Britain during this period.

Scabies is caused by infestation with a parasitic mite, and this was spreading rapidly between people inhabiting air raid shelters and barracks and living in the overcrowded living conditions characteristic of wartime Britain.

The British scientist Kenneth Mellanby (1908-1993) was given the permission to establish a research centre to study how scabies was transmitted.

Sheffield was chosen as a location and in 1941 the Sorby Research Institute was established.

This was housed within Fairholmes, a large building situated at 18 Oakholme Road in the Broomhill area of the city.

Mellanby became the first director; he was a parasite ecologist and had studied at King’s College, Cambridge then completed his doctoral work at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Mellanby’s main aim was to investigate how the condition was transmitted between people.

Scabies had long been associated with poverty, dubious behaviour and questionable morals.

The condition was euphemistically known as ‘shelter rash’ by those not wishing to be associated with its low reputation.

Mellanby speculated that increased dancing and cinema-going was causing an increase in the disease.

Conscientious objectors acted as experimental subjects for research purposes.

They proved willing experimental subjects, eager to show that although against warfare they were not cowards.

Initially there were 12 volunteers, which soon increased to 35, three of whom were women.

In order to see how easily the mite spread Mellanby got the volunteers to wear the underclothes or to sleep under the blankets of soldiers who had been infected with scabies.

He even pondered on the possibility of suggesting adultery between the volunteers to see if this spread the mite more easily.

However, this idea was eventually discarded.

Using the volunteers Mellanby was also able to chart the progress of the disease and be one of the first to describe the full course of a scabies infection.

Mellanby’s work showed that this was not necessarily a disease of illicit activities; mere close physical contact was enough for it to spread between people.

The itching infestation caused was said to be almost intolerable.

The Sorby Research Institute also pursued research into nutrition, looking at the effects of vitamins A and C.

However, research there ended in 1946 with the end of the war.

Today the house on Oak-holme Road is student accommodation for the University of Sheffield.

One would hope that opportunities for the transmission of such conditions at this location are now long a thing of the past.

lMark Walker is a parasite biologist based in Sheffield.

lTwo of the volunteers spoke about their experiences to the Sheffield Telegraph in 2003.

Norman Proctor of Ranmoor was a conscientious objector who lived at the institute for almost six years.

When the war broke out he was a baker, a reserved occupation. “ The other men refused to work with me because I was a conscientious objector so I got the sack. I was out on a limb. Then I heard about Dr Mellanby’s experiment on scabies. I thought it would help others.”

He recalled: “We had to put on soldiers’ dirty uniforms and underwear – this was hard for some volunteers. Then we had to share beds, trying to pass the scabies among us.”

Ethel Stuart, of Grenoside, volunteered to join the experiments in 1942 on vitamin A requirements. She lived at home with her parents while her diet was depleted of vitamin A for two years.

She said: “I feel the experiments were important and worthwhile – I would take part again if it would help people.”