Administering Colonial Science

I’m excited to see that my newest article, “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,” has just come out in the May 2013 issue of the scholarly journal, Histoire sociale/Social History. 

This is the first piece of new, non-dissertation related research I’ve published since receiving my PhD and it was, without a doubt, the most difficult research project I’ve undertaken. But while the subject matter and the sources were often disturbing, I think that the story itself is one the needs to be told if Canadians hope to come to grips with the devastating impact of Canada’s colonial policies governing the lives of Aboriginal peoples.

I struggled to include all of the relevant arguments in the space allotted for the official abstract, so I’ve posted a somewhat extended abstract below that captures a bit more of what I think the paper is trying to say.

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“Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942-1952″ Histoire sociale / Social History XLVI , no 91 (Mai/May 2013): 145-172.

Abstract: Between 1942 and 1952, some of Canada’s leading nutrition experts, in cooperation with various federal departments, conducted an unprecedented series of nutritional studies of Aboriginal communities and residential schools. The most ambitious and perhaps best known of these was the 1947-1948 James Bay Survey of the Attawapiskat and Rupert’s House Cree First Nations. Less well known were two separate long-term studies that went so far as to include controlled experiments conducted, apparently without the subjects’ informed consent or knowledge, on malnourished Aboriginal populations in Northern Manitoba and, later, in six Indian residential schools. This article explores these studies and experiments, in part to provide a narrative record of a largely unexamined episode of exploitation and neglect by the Canadian government. At the same time, it situates these studies within the context of broader federal policies governing the lives of Aboriginal peoples, a shifting Canadian consensus concerning the science of nutrition, and changing attitudes towards the ethics of biomedical experimentation on human beings during a period that encompassed, among other things, the establishment of the Nuremberg Code of experimental research ethics.

In doing so, this article argues that – during the war and early postwar period – bureaucrats, doctors, and scientists recognized the problems of hunger and malnutrition, yet increasingly came to view Aboriginal bodies as “experimental materials” and residential schools and Aboriginal communities as kinds of “laboratories” that they could use to pursue a number of different political and professional interests. Nutrition experts, for their part, were provided with the rare opportunity to observe the effects of nutritional interventions (and non-interventions, as it turned out) on human subjects while, for Dr. Percy Moore and others within the Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services bureaucracy, nutrition offered a new explanation for – and novel solutions to – the so-called “Indian Problems” of susceptibility to disease and economic dependency. In the end, these studies did little to alter the structural conditions that led to malnutrition and hunger in the first place and, as a result, did more to bolster the career ambitions of the researchers than to improve the health of those identified as being malnourished.

UPDATE: The article is being made publicly available by Histoire sociale/Social History for a few weeks at least. Download the article here.


  1. Val Jobson

    How far does your research extend? J.R. Markle, agent on the Blackfoot/Siksika Reserve 1900-04, had a “work or starve” program and probably some people did starve to death. When the Blackfoot/Siksika surrendered land for sale in 1910 (at then Inspector Markle’s urging) one of the conditions was that they receive rations out of the land sale money. They did get rations and their health improved, but even then I think the schools did not increase rations for the children at school.

    Indian Affairs employees may have generally had a long-term callous assumption that Indians would always be poor and short-lived.

  2. Keith Hunter

    Thank you very much for doing this research and for publishing this very needed work. Is it possible to obtain your complete report? As important as this is it would be great to have the complete report available to those of us that don’t have the institutional access to the muse website.

  3. Sandra

    Hi. As a reporter and former Northener, I too would like to know where I can get a full copy of this article please?
    Thank you

  4. Bernadette

    Got the article, thank you for publishing this report. sadly, not much has changed since the 50s in some regard.

  5. charles

    My concern is the off spring of the children tested,I believe my father was in the “Care” of the government at that time in Norway House.

  6. Mike Myers

    The residential school mentioned as in Kenora is Cecelia Jeffrey (CJ) and has a long history of abuse issues and now we can add inhuman experimentation. I work with several First Nations whose citizens were sent to CJ so we are now exploring additional actions that can be taken on this issue. Is it possible to get the names of those responsible for planning this and those in government who approved it. It’s time those responsible were brought into the light of day.

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  8. Jillian

    Is this paper still available? I’m trying to access it through the above links with an institutional affiliation but it does not seem to be available or even searchable.

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