David Reimer – Possibly the most unethical study in psychological history


David Reimer was born as Bruce Reimer in 1965. Aged 8 months, Bruce and his twin Brian went for a routine circumcision. However, Bruce’s penis was accidently destroyed during his operation. John Money (1965) was a well-known psychologist and a sexologist at the time. Money (1965) suggested that Bruce should have a sex change, as plastic surgery was not advanced enough. Unknown to Bruce’s parents, Money had an ulterior motive (Diamond and Sigmundson, 1997).

Money had been working on a theory – that any boy could be raised as a girl (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972). He believed that Nurture was more important than Nature when it came to gender roles. The Reimer twins provided Money with a perfect sample, two twin boys (one believing they were a girl) raised by the same people in the same way. This allowed Money to experiment on Bruce while using Brian as a control.

Bruce underwent surgery and was raised as Brenda, a girl. Brenda behaved exactly as a little girl; playing with dolls, baking cookies, wearing dresses etc. Money published his works, stating that he had evidence to back up his theory. However, around the age of 7, Brenda began to act in a masculine way. In an attempt to stop this, Money tried to force Brenda to realise that she was female, and in some cases he was even accused of acting in a paedophilic way towards her and her brother (Langevin & Reuben, 1985).

Around the age of 13, Brenda began to look and act incredibly masculine, rejecting the femininity that had been forced upon her. Brenda’s parents eventually told her the truth when she was 14. Immediately she decided that she wanted to be a boy again, she stopped taking her hormones and changed her name to David. David later had surgery to reconstruct a penis, and went on to have a wife and children. However, aged 38 he committed suicide, 2 years after his twin also killed himself. It is believed that they both committed suicide because of the methodology used by Money and his impact on their life (Kipnis & Diamond, 1998)

Money’s reputation was ruined after he reported successes on a flawed experiment. David and his twin brother alleged that Dr Money had taken numerous naked photos of the twins during their treatment, and had even forced them to engage in “sexual play” at age 7 (Diamond & Sigmundson). As a psychologist, Money should have sought to protect the twins as they were so young (Galliher, 1973).

This study breaks many ethical codes of conduct. Firstly, the Reimer twins’ parents were deceived by Money. They were never told of his intentions to use their son as part of an experiment, and were led to believe that a sex change was the only option for baby Bruce. Secondly, Bruce never gave his consent to have the sex change, or to be involved in Money’s experiment. Although he was only a baby, his whole life was affected by the decisions of other people.

Perhaps the biggest issue was that Moneys experiment did not only ruin the lives of the whole family, but ultimately lead to the death of the twins. Although the twins offered a perfect sample for Money, as a psychologist he should have respected the rules of ethics and sort other ways to conduct research. However unethical this study was, it could be concluded from the findings that gender roles are biologically innate, with Nature overriding Nurture.

A doctumentary discussing the life of Davied Reimer is available here – http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3767337480016853964



Diamond, M. & Sigmundson, H. K. (1997) Sex reassignment at birth: a long-term review and clinical implications, Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 152, 298 – 304

Galliher, J. F. (1973) The protection of human subjects: A re-examination of the professional code of ethics, The American Sociologist, Vol 8, 93-100

Kipnis, K. & Diamond, M. (1998) Pediatric Ethics and the Surgical Assignment of Sex, The Journal of Clinical Ethics, Vol 9(4) 398-410

Langevin, R. & Reuben, L. A. (1985) Psychological treatment of paedophiles, Behavioural Sciences and the Law, Vol 3(4), 403 – 419

Money, J. & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972) Man and woman, boy and girl: Differentiation and dimorphism of gender identity from conception to maturity.


12 responses »

  1. I agree with your point of view as I feel that Money put the parents of Bruce and Brain in an impossible situation with very little help or research to support any of his ideas. He pressured them to commit to a decision that they could not go back on without explaining any of the negative implications this could have on their children. Even though in some studies such as that of Milgram or Zimbardo we tend to forgive them for breaching the ethical guidelines. In this case I feel that Money abused his power as a way of testing his ideas. I feel strongly against this because Money’s participants were children therefore he should of acted with a huge degree of care for their welfare.

  2. One very interesting aspect of this case, is the schizophrenia diagnosis of David Reimer’s twin brother Brian (Crawley, Foley & Shehan, 2008). Given the strongly genetic, and highly heritable nature of schizophrenia (Cardno & Gottesman, 2000), it is worth considering that David was at least a high-risk candidate to develop schizophrenia, and may have suffered from psychotic symptoms. Gottesman and Cardno (2000) demonstrate that in relation to a family member with schizophrenia, there is a 48% increased risk in identical twins, compared to 9% in normal siblings developing schizophrenia. Whilst Dr. Money should be rightfully criticised for ethical negligence, it is possible that some of the blame attributed to him for the tragic death of David Reimer, might have some bearing in psychosis.

    Cardno, A. G., & Gottesman, I. I. (2000). Twin studies of schizophrenia: From bow-and-arrow concordances to Star Wars Mx and functional genomics. American Journal of Medical Genetics, 97, 12-17. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/%28SICI%291096-8628%28200021%2997:1%3C12::AID-AJMG3%3E3.0.CO;2-U/full

    Crawley, S. L., Foley, L. J., Shehan, C. L. (2008). Gendering bodies. Maryland, US: Rowman & Littlefield.

    • “Whilst Dr. Money should be rightfully criticised for ethical negligence, it is possible that some of the blame attributed to him for the tragic death of David Reimer, might have some bearing in psychosis. ”

      That would be true if a diagnosis of schizophrenia wasn’t a rather soft science in the first place. How do they treat schizophrenia? With chemicals. What do our endocrine glands do? They make chemicals. I guess you could prove me wrong by castrating a number of boys and seeing if the rates of mental illness go up, but really…I don’t think you have to. We all pretty much know it would. Right?

  3. Merely point out he did not consent to the circumcision either. The fact that millions can be cut without an authority protector figure saying it’s wrong, and the results we see happening (at least 100 die in the US per year, all boys because it’s illegal for girls to get this done).

  4. Have read book on this sad, sad case “As Nature Made Him” and it seemed to me that Dr Money was not at all concerned with the poor child’s future, but only with perverted experimentation and proving his warped theories (he couldn’t!)…all he did was set an innocent child on a long , agonising road to suicide.

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  9. I wonder if the one who performed the ‘accident’ was in on it all along? Money probably spoke with him, told him ‘hey, next set of twins…’ the surgeon took err…the money, and the rest is medical history.

    Why would I doubt this in any way really? Further how did we end up here? How did we get to the point where this is being pushed in society to the degree it is? Everyone knows it’s wrong, and still, we’re giving children chemicals to forestall puberty? It’s a mistake, and we know it.

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