Declaration of Helsinki: History & Summary

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

The Declaration of Helsinki is one of the world's most important research ethics documents related to medical research. In this lesson, we will learn about the Declaration of Helsinki, its purpose, and its history.


The Declaration of Helsinki is a formal statement developed by the World Medical Association that provides ethical guidelines that physicians and other medical research participants should adhere to when conducting research that uses human subjects. A human subject is any living person that a researcher obtains data from, including data obtained through interacting with the person and identifiable information about the person or their opinion. The Declaration of Helsinki was first adopted in Helsinki, Finland by the 18th World Medical Association General Assembly in June, 1964.

World War II and the Nuremberg Trials

Prior to World War II, there was no internationally accepted statement of ethical principles governing research with human subjects, although Germany, Russia, and other nations had their own policies. After World War II, the Nuremberg Trials were held in Nuremberg, Germany, with the sole purpose of prosecuting Nazi war criminals. There were thirteen trials that were carried out between 1945 and 1949. From December, 1946 until August, 1947 the Doctors Trial was held, during which 23 individuals faced accusations of committing crimes against humanity. These crimes included the horrific medical experimentation on concentration camp victims. As a result of these trials, the 1947 Nuremberg Code emerged, which is a set of ten ethical principles that govern research with human subjects.

Brief summary of the ten ethical principles of the Nuremberg Code.
nuremberg code

The Declaration of Helsinki

The Declaration of Helsinki was heavily influenced by the Nuremberg Code. Like the Nuremberg Code, the goal of the Declaration of Helsinki was to prevent human subjects from being mistreated. The Declaration of Helsinki provided guidance for physicians who were conducting clinical research and focused on researchers' roles and responsibilities when it comes to protecting human subjects. The Declaration of Helsinki is seen as the first major attempt of the medical community to police itself. It also provided the foundation for later research ethics developments and statements.

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