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Henry Knowles Beecher

Anesthesiologist. Born: February 4, 1904, Peck, Kansas. Died: July 25, 1976, Boston, Massachusetts.

Henry Knowles Beecher (born Harry Knowles Unangst) was born on February 4, 1904, in Peck, Sedgwick County, to parents Henry Eugene and Mary Julia (Kerley) Unangst.

Beecher attended the University of Kansas, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1926 and master’s degree in 1927. He went on to attend Harvard Medical School in 1928, graduating in 1932.  

He married Margaret Swain on November 3, 1934.

From 1936 to 1969 he was the chief of anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital and from 1941 to 1970 he served as the first Henry I. Dorr Distinguished Professor of Research in anesthesia at Harvard University. He was consultant for the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Public Health Service for 10 years between 1946 and 1956. He also received awards such as the University’s Distinguished Service Citation in 1958 and the Distinguished Service Award of the American Society of Anesthesiologists in 1971.

Some of his research dealt with reactions to placebos. These ideas were not unique to Beecher, however, he showed for the first time in his paper The Powerful Placebo (1955)that double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trials were a necessity.

He was also active in the work of medical ethics. In 1966 he published an article on the topic. It highlights 22 instances of clinical research of an unethical nature, which brought risk to patients’ lives. Although some accused him of choosing select cases and making an unfair generalization of those cases, his article and the congressional investigation that followed became the groundwork for today’s guidelines on informed consent and human experimentation.

Beecher died on July 25, 1976, in Boston, Massachusetts.

Entry: Henry Knowles Beecher

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: July 2016

Date Modified: December 2016

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.