He gained notoriety in 1962 with what became known as the Milgram Obedience Experiment. That experiment raised ethical issues that dogged his career forever. He almost failed to gain admission to the American Psychological Association, and never did gain tenure at Harvard University.
Milgram's early life informed his work. Born in 1933 in the Bronx in New York City, he grew up in a Jewish household. Shortly after the Second World War, distant relatives came to stay at the Milgram home – and tell tales of the Holocaust and their survival of it. Milgram would go on to mention that in his Bar Mitzvah speech.
In 1962 he memorably tested the thesis that obedience is all too easy to elicit. Working at Yale University, he brought in fifty subjects at a time, informing each that he was testing the effect of punishment on memory and memorization. What he was actually doing was giving his subjects more draconian and terrifying orders, on a sliding scale, and measuring at what point – if any – his subjects would balk. Some did. But fifty percent of his subjects did not balk.
In 1976 he consulted on a CBS Special Presentation, The Tenth Level. Actor William Shatner portrayed a fictitious version of Milgram. Milgram said afterward that the project did not satisfy him, to the point of his demanding that CBS leave his name off the credits. In fact, The Tenth Level took many liberties with his original Obedience Experiment, including the portrayal of one of his subjects having a psychotic breakdown, storming out of the laboratory, and then virtually asking someone in a bar to beat him up, in order to do some sort of penance for the obedience he had shown in the experiment. Nothing like that ever happened to any of Milgram's actual subjects.
Milgram died in 1984.