Human subject research and the Nuremberg Code

nuremberg code

Jungwoo Kang

Ewha Law School

Last month, Volkswagen received huge outrages from the media and public after an allegation of that VW might have conducted diesel tests on monkeys. Following the news, German carmakers admitted they were engaged in not only animal but human subject research between 2012 and 2015 in which humans and monkeys were exposed to exhaust fumes and nitrogen dioxide for hours. In the study, the human subjects were asked to inhale the gas, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, even a short-term exposure to the gas can cause serious health repercussions, in particular, asthma. The monkeys were locked in small airtight chambers and were forced to breathe the fumes while being left to watch cartoons. The study was for proving diesel is environmentally friendly.

Human subject research has a long history, but the guidelines and regulations of such research only emerged in the early 1900s. At the end of the World War II, the Nuremberg Code was established which is a list of ethics principles for human subject experimentation. During the second World War, numerous and notorious unethical medical experiments on humans were conducted under the name of research purposes, which were rather for torturing and exterminating the Jews. After the end of the war, trials were held against the German physicians who were responsible for the unethical human research, and the Nuremberg Code was constituted.

There are 10 principles in the Code, which are requiring a voluntary and informed consent of the human subject; justifications for the experiment with previous knowledge; an avoidance of unnecessary physical and mental sufferings; proportionality between the risks and the benefits; fully trained and qualified staffs; freedom of the human subjects to quit the experiment at any point.

The Nuremberg Code has not been directly adopted as law by any countries or any nations. That is mainly due to the ambiguous nature of the principles. It is not certain who created the Code; whether it is created by the judges or the medical witnesses in the case. It is also unclear if the Code was to be applied to the convicted or healthy volunteers other than the Nazi case itself. The wording is also only limited to a suggestive nature.

However, the concept of informed consent has been adopted by many jurisdictions, such as that of the United States and England and Wales, and the Code serves as a foundation for WHO guidelines for human subject research. It is still considered as the most significant reference of medical research ethics.



Jack Ewing, 10 Monkeys and a Beetle: Inside VW’s Campaign for ‘Clean Diesel’. The New York Times. Available at:

Rick Noack. German carmakers backed studies exposing people and monkeys to toxic car exhaust. The Washington Post. Avaliable at:

Shuster, Evelyne. “Fifty years later: the significance of the Nuremberg Code.” New England Journal of Medicine 337.20 (1997): 1436-1440.

Vollmann, Jochen, and Rolf Winau. “Informed consent in human experimentation before the Nuremberg code.” BMJ: British Medical Journal 313.7070 (1996): 144

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