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First Do No Harm Part II

Continuing with looking at the history of medical abuses in the US outlined in  Medical Apartheid by Harriet A Washington, this post involves human radiation experiments. In many cases, scientists and doctors without consent and knowingly in violation of informed consent standards subjected people to radiation to study its effects. 

Radiation experiments first began with Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays in 1895. Soon after, doctors started using radiation on their patients, and some even opened clinics that encouraged the use of radiation for beautification purposes, specifically targeting African Americans through advertisements that claimed to lighten skin tone. Despite the use of atomic bombs in WWII proving radiation was harmful and deadly, scientists still conducted these experiments. 

In 1945, Robert Stone, MD injected an injured black truck driver with plutonium-239 without his consent. Ebb Cade of Greensboro, NC was one of four passengers who suffered severe injuries following a vehicle collision. Cade was taken to Manhattan Engineer District Hospital in Oak Ridge. At the behest of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) he was injected with 41 times the normal lifetime exposure of plutonium. And for five days, the AEC doctors extracted bone chips and pulled fifteen teeth to test plutonium levels. Only after that, five days after his accident, did they set his broken bones. Six months later, Cade was still in the hospital, but before they could collect more specimens from Cade, he disappeared. One day, the staff went to his hospital room and he was gone. The AEC doctors were disappointed because they wanted to autopsy his body. 

Elmer Allen, a married father of two and Pullman Porter, fractured his leg jumping trains. Despite it being a very common injury among porters, he was fired and had to eventually seek treatment at University of San Francisco’s free clinic. He was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. July 18, 1947, his left leg was injected with plutonium-238 (more radioactive than plutonium-239). He thought he was getting cancer treatment but his doctors never meant it as a therapeutic. He was informed they would inject him but was not told what was being injected nor its true purpose. This was all despite AMA and AEC informed consent guidelines. Three days after the injection, Allen’s leg was amputated. Allen felt his leg was amputated because they wanted to study the effects of the plutonium not because he actually needed an amputation. It is unclear if it was medically necessary, because a common treatment for chondrosarcoma is removal of the tumor or affected area. Allen however, lived for 40 more years telling people and having them not believe him, that he was experimented on. His credibility was further questioned when his family doctor diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. But in 1973 government scientists paid for his travel and expenses to Chicago Argonne National Laboratory‘s Center for Human Radiology (CHR) for three weeks to retrieve body tissue to inventory lingering radioactivity and to measure resultant physical damage. They found radiation-induced jaw abnormalities and similar changes in other bones. They also found lingering radiation in his tissues despite amputation. Allen died in 1987, shortly after he was vindicated by Eieem Welsome’s Pulitzer prize winning series for Albuquerque Journal and her book The Plutonium Files. She investigated dozens of governmental experiments including Allen’s. 

Following WWII, the United States sought out Nazi scientists. The U.S. State Department, army intelligence and the OSS (predecessor to the CIA) recruited former Third Reich scientists granting them immunity, jobs, and new identities through a resettlement program called Operation Paperclip. Operation Paperclip supplied American hospitals and clinics with 700 Nazi scientists. All of their experiments were done in secret and the racial breakdown of the patients were not properly recorded. 

So, what did they do? Nothing good. For example, between 1951 and 1956, a German physiologist and former Nazi, Herbert Gerstner supervised a total body irradiation (TBI) project of 263 cancer patients at MD Anderson Hospital for Cancer Research. The radiation destroyed their bone marrow, resulting in fatal anemia. The patients died rapidly and the hospital abandoned the experiment. In 1947, despite the effects of radiation being widely known, AEC’s Col. E.E. Kirkpatrick expanded the radiation program when he secretly ordered radioactive injections be given to unsuspecting patients and inmates throughout America. 

In a 1950 memo to senior AEC staff from Dr. Joseph Hamilton, he warned that radioactive experimentation on the unwitting was unethical and illegal. In 1953, the Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson issued a memo that the Nuremberg Code of informed consent was DOD policy. Despite this, scientists persisted in another fifty experimental radiation abuses within hospitals from LA to New York. The Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Commission(AEC) spearheaded this research, some of which persisted throughout the 1970s. 

Between 1963 and 1971, a doctor irradiated the testicles of 131 prisoners in Oregon, including 66 black men. A Vanderbilt University physician administered radioactive cocktails to pregnant women in Nashville. The University of Chicago fed radioactive elements, strontium and cesium to 102 unwitting patients at state schools. One institution, the Fernald School in Waltham, Massachusetts added radioactive oatmeal to the menu of thirty orphans in a program sponsored by AEC in conjunction with the Quaker Oats Company. Video shows that some of the Fernald boys were Black, but records are nonexistent. Over all these programs, when these victims died, their bodies were autopsied and measured for levels of radioactivity and biological damage. The worst was Operation Sunshine, where 1500 bodies were exposed and collected.  Operation sunshine lasted until the mid 1980s where without the knowledge of patients or their next of kin, the program shipped bodies and body parts of radiation experiment victims to be dissected at a location in Los Alamos, New Mexico. 

Between 1960-1972, University of Cincinnati radiologist, Eugene L. Saenger, directed high dose TBI (total body irradiation) on 200 cancer patients (150 of whom were black). TBIs are extremely dangerous. TBIs deliver the equivalent of 15,000 chest x-rays to the entire body. 42% of people given TBIs die within weeks, sometimes days. Saegner’s subjects, such as the 82 patients in Cincinnati (51 Black) were only told that TBI was a cancer treatment. The TBI destroyed their bone marrow and caused anemia, vomiting and falling white blood cells leading to infections. 1 in 4 patients died quickly after the treatment. Saenger’s TBI projects did not end until 1972, when DOD cut the funding.

In 1993, the first African American Department of Energy secretary, Hazel O’Leary ordered the opening of all DOE records of 435 human radiation experiments conducted between 1944 and 1990s. On January 15, 1994, President Bill Clinton created the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) to investigate fully the genesis of these experiments and to judge them. Clinton gave an official government apology to the victims on October 3, 1995 but it was overshadowed because that was the same day the O.J.verdict was announced. Clinton’s remarks did not mention race. The investigation resulted in many civil lawsuits, but no physicians that conducted the experiments faced trial. The ACHRE chose to interview the researchers instead of charging them with crimes.

The picture should be coming clear as to why many Americans, Black Americans in particular are distrustful of the medical community. Next week, I will continue the medical black history topic with research performed on Black prisioners.

One reply on “First Do No Harm Part II”

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