The Iowa Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on Friday that the University of Iowa could be sued for its role in a notorious research project, started in 1939, in which orphans were taught to stutter.
Some of the orphans developed stutters and others said that they had lifelong damage because of the experiments, which were supervised by the late Wendell Johnson, who was considered a leader in treating speech disorders. The research became known as the "Monster Study" to graduate students who helped with it, and to a wider public when the research was revealed in 2001 by The San Jose Mercury News. While the specific project Johnson started with orphans had long been abandoned by that time, many of those involved did not know why they had speech or other problems.
Several of the surviving orphans sued the university after they learned what had happened to them. But the university said that it was immune under state law from being sued. The Supreme Court's ruling centered not on the nature of the research or the university's responsibility for it, but on various Iowa laws and court rulings about instances in which the state can be sued. The court's majority said that the research subjects had the right to sue because they sought legal relief promptly after learning what had happened, and that no Iowa statutes barred the suit.
The Iowa Supreme Court's ruling does not resolve the case, but sends it back to a lower court to hear arguments on the merits of the issues involved.
The university has apologized for the experiments. Shortly after the Mercury News reported on them, David Skorton (then the vice president for research and now Iowa's president) issued a statement saying that the university was "deeply sorry" for what had happened.
"While there were no effective safeguards in place in 1939 to prevent such experiments from occurring at universities, the University of Iowa today has in place a strict policy and procedures to insure the safety of all humans in research and has had these controls in place for some years," the statement said.