Episode 2: Diethylstilbestrol: A Warning from the PastEpisode 2:

In 1948, a year after a trio of judges wrote the Nuremberg Code in response to Nazi experiments on human subjects kidnapped and imprisoned in concentration camps, Olive Watkins Smith published, “Diethylstilbestrol in the prevention and treatment of complications of pregnancy.” In this paper, Smith describes how she and her husband convinced obstetricians across the US to treat pregnant women with an experimental drug — diethylstilbestrol, or DES. Smith convinced these doctors to treat the pregnant women in their care with a drug where no one understood the potential toxicity, long-term harm, or damage this drug would do to them or their children. Olive Smith and her husband George Smith caused hundreds of women to be exposed to DES, in order to support their ultimately flawed hypothesis that estrogen was the key driver to maintaining a healthy pregnancy.

This is the story of how a pair of scientists, through flawed scientific studies, kicked off a campaign that grew widespread support throughout the scientific community. It’s a story of how confirmation bias blinds scientists, and leads to faulty hypotheses and perpetuates flawed understanding of the science. And how confirmation bias, poor study designs, and a lack of scientific integrity ultimately harms millions of people — in this case millions of pregnant women and their children.

This is the sad, unfortunate story of diethylstilbestrol.

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