History is replete with tales of valor, sacrifice, and unexpected heroes who emerge in the face of adversity. One such extraordinary story comes from the annals of World War II, where an invisible enemy posed a greater threat to American soldiers than the German forces. In this distinctive and controversial experiment at the Stateville Penitentiary in Illinois, more than 400 prisoners became heroes by willingly risking their lives to combat this hidden enemy. Their selfless actions not only helped American soldiers win but also made the world safer for everyone. Let’s delve into the story of these 400 US prisoners who transformed from prisoners to heroes.

The Invisible Enemy

World War II was a time of unprecedented global conflict, and the United States was fully committed to the fight for freedom and democracy. While American soldiers faced enemy forces on the front lines, they also battled an invisible enemy – malaria. It’s estimated that between 60 to 65 percent of American soldiers stationed in the South Pacific during WWII suffered from a malarial infection at some point during their service.

Malaria had become a silent menace, claiming more lives than the enemy soldiers themselves. In the midst of this struggle, the search for an effective treatment became a high priority. To save the lives of American soldiers, it was not only essential to create this anti-malarial drug quickly but also to ensure its safety. The United States was determined to leave no stone unturned in this fight.

The Heroic Experiment at Stateville Penitentiary

In 1944, a remarkable experiment began at the Stateville Penitentiary in Illinois. Over the course of two years, more than 400 prisoners willingly became subjects in an endeavor aimed at finding an effective drug against malaria. These prisoners, displaying tremendous courage and patriotism, contributed to this experiment without concern for their own lives.

The prisoners participating in the experiment were infected with malaria and then treated with experimental anti-malarial drugs. What sets this experiment apart is that the intent behind it was not concealed from the subjects. These prisoners were fully aware of the risks they were undertaking, and their contribution was recognized as an act of patriotism. In many instances, they were given shorter prison sentences as a token of appreciation for their participation.

The Sacrifices and Their Significance

The sacrifices made by these prisoners were undeniably significant, whether they fully comprehended the extent of their contributions or not. Their willingness to endure the physical and emotional challenges of this experiment played a pivotal role in the development of anti-malarial drugs. These sacrifices were not in vain, as they not only protected American soldiers but countless others in malarial-endemic regions around the world.


The story of the heroes of Stateville Penitentiary is a testament to the indomitable spirit of humanity during times of great adversity. These unsung heroes willingly risked their lives to combat an invisible enemy, ultimately contributing to the development of life-saving anti-malarial drugs. Their sacrifice paved the way for a safer and healthier world, and their bravery deserves to be remembered and celebrated. In the pages of history, their names may not be as well-known as some, but their contribution is no less heroic. It serves as a reminder that even in the darkest of times, selflessness and courage can shine through and make the world a better place for all.

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  • Adams, Michael CC. Living hell: The dark side of the Civil War. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. [Book]
  • Reidy, Joseph P. Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery. UNC Press Books, 2019. [Book]

By The Research Mind

We, researchers from the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge, are dedicated to sharing the latest updates, breakthroughs, and even the occasional blunders in Science & Technology. Stay tuned for some truly mind-blowing science experiments!

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