Restoring a reputation | University of Oxford
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Restoring a reputation

Jonathan Wood

An astonishing and shocking story from the time of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia has been unearthed, thanks to the efforts of J Kevin Baird, who directs the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit based in Jakarta, and his Indonesian colleague, Professor Sangkot Marzuki, Director of the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology.

Reported in The Observer at the weekend, the events include hundreds of deaths of forced labourers, accounts of the torture of local doctors and researchers, and the beheading of a leading Indonesian scientist who is likely to have been innocent of any crime. A full account also appeared earlier this month in Science.

In July 1944, during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, around 900 Indonesians in a forced labour camp outside Jakarta were injected with a vaccine. All of them died within a week.

The Japanese military police arrested local researchers, doctors and staff at a scientific institute in Jakarta, accusing them of sabotaging the vaccine. The Indonesian head of the Eijkman Institute and a leading light in clinical research at the time, Professor Achmad Mochtar, was executed for this crime by the Japanese military police in July 1945 as the War in the Pacific drew to an end.

Kevin Baird teamed up with Sangot Marzuki, who heads the present-day Eijkman Institute of Molecular Biology where the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit is based, to investigate what really happened.

They sought out documents from the time, written accounts, and interviewed former institute staff and family members of those who survived Japanese captivity and torture.

They are convinced their research exonerates the executed Mochtar, who appears to have confessed to the crimes to save his colleagues. They also suggest that the 900 deaths occurred not through contaminated vaccines, but may have occurred during the course of a Japanese medical experiment. Baird and Marzuki believe that the forced labourers were likely to have been given an experimental tetanus vaccine developed by the Japanese and intended for their troops, then given tetanus toxin to see if it worked.

Thanks to their work, some light has been shed on the causes behind hundreds of deaths in a forced labour camp some 65 years ago. And the standing of a remarkable scientist – and a remarkable man – Achmad Mochtar is on its way to restoration.