from the pages of../

Radiation Scandal

By Anthony and Denise Ji-Ahnte Sibert


Thanks to the persistence of reporter Eileen Wellsome of The Albuquerque Tribune, whose special report last November titled "The Plutonium Experiment" cracked open a decades long scandal of radiation experiments on unsuspecting citizens throughout the country, we are now seeing evidence of the atomic age horrors that so many in the scientific community and government knew but kept silent about. It is a collection of U.S. government sponsored guinea pig experiments. But there is also another sad fact: The experiments reveal a disturbingly large involvement of people of color, especially African-Americans.

Though it is clear that other reports of radiation tests on civilians--mainly poor, disadvantaged, or mentally impaired--during the Cold War were not limited to blacks only, they do show a continuing legacy of medical science using unsuspecting African Americans. There is little or no informed consent involved. This is nothing new as all African-Americans share a common medical/scientific history: Black lives are easily expendable. Thus it is no surprise that this bitter legacy has found renewal with the recent revelations of the Cold War radiation experiments.

E. Cooper Brown, Director of the National Committee of Radiation Victims, says, "It is my guess that all those experimented on with radiation will turn up to be at least 60 per cent people of color, with a large portion being African Americans." If this is indeed true, then African Americans will be part of yet another medical/scientific nightmare comparable to--and even surpassing--the Tuskegee experiments.

The Tuskegee experiments were a 40 year government sponsored medical study begun in 1932 that allowed 399 late stage syphilitic African American men to go untreated, even when safe and effective medical treatments were available in the 1940s. Also affected were 50 wives who were infected by their husbands and 20 children who were given the disease congenitally. When the study became public in 1972 after an expose by Jean Heller of the Associated Press, there was much public outcry with many in the black community saying the study already confirmed their suspicions of a governmental plan for genocide of black Americans. Congress held hearings to investigate the study resulting in passage of the 1974 National Research Act which implemented stricter federal guidelines on research institutions using federal money and mandating institutional review boards to oversee research using human subjects-which are currently being violated on a grand scale.

As in the Tuskegee experiments, the radiation tests also show a very benign concern by the researchers for their black patients. When we interviewed Dr. Louis A. Gottschalk, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the 1969 study "Total and HalfBody Irradiation," we asked him was there follow-up on the patients to see if any were still alive during 1969 (his study looked at 16 patients, 13 of which were black). He said, "These were terminal cancer patients. I was interested in just cognitive aspects--there were no follow-ups."

Lets examine what is currently known regarding the involvement of African Americans in the Cold War radiation tests:


The Cincinnati Experiments

Records revealed last January show that 61 African Americans were guinea pigs along with 12 others in a 12 year military study at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center designed to see how exposure to full- and partial- body radiation 10 times higher than normal would effect the body. After 60 days of exposure to the radiation (250 rads in one session), 25 of the patients died.

The tests were conducted from 1960 to 1972 by Eugene L. Saenger, an eminent radiological health specialist. Saenger knew something was wrong as he wrote a report to the Defense Department stating, "one can identify eight cases in which there is a possibility of the therapy contributing to mortality." Ironically, Saenger also serves as a key governmental witness on radiation lawsuit cases brought against the Department of Energy.

Dr. David S. Egilman has been researching the Cincinnati experiments for over ten years and did not mince words when he told us, "What they did was murder those black patients. And those researchers, Gottschalk and Saenger, as dirty as Mingele." Egilman testified on January 18 before the House of Representatives Energy and Power Subcommittee regarding the experiments and further contends that the tests were conducted with no informed consent and were not ethical at the time.


The Oakridge Experiment

On March 24, 1945, a 55-year-old black truck driver, Ebb Cade, was admitted to the U.S. Army Manhattan Engineer District Hospital in Oakridge, Tennessee for treatment of bodily injuries resulting from a car accident. The extent of his injuries were so severe that he was not expected to live. On April 10, 1945, documents show that he was injected with a significant amount of plutonium. Cade was the first patient out of 18--all of which the DOE has still not completely identified--to be injected with plutonium. He received 0.29 microcuries of plutonium 239, a dose equal to 1,030 rems or 41.2 times what the average person receives in a lifetime.

Dr. Karl Morgan, a physicist from the University of Chicago, who came to Oakridge in 1943 to work on the Manhattan Project, described in a letter to The Oakridger newspaper how Dr. Robert S. Stone--the doctor who injected the plutonium--discussed Cade's unsuspecting involvement and eventual disappearance from the hospital a few days later. Morgan writes: "Dr. Stone was particularly concerned because, as he said, this man was part of an experiment to determine the risk to man from exposure to plutonium. This poor `expected casualty' had suddenly gotten up out of his bed at the hospital and disappeared. I was upset and concerned when I heard about this human experiment because as described to me this black man was unconscious and not expected to live when he was injected with plutonium. I was disturbed for two reasons: One, the poor man could not possibly have given his consent to be a guinea pig and two, I was afraid he was selected for this experiment in part because he was black and it was unlikely any of his family would learn of the plutonium injection... "

Injecting Newborn Babies with Radioactive Iodide in Memphis

During 1953 and 1954, seven newborn babies--six of whom were black--were injected with radioactive iodide at the John Gaston Hospital, a now defunct public hospital in Memphis, TN. The study was conducted by Lester Van Middlesworth, now professor emeritus of physiology, biophysics and medicine at the University of Tennessee's College of Medicine. Middlesworth claims race was not a factor, telling the Albuquerque Tribune, "It [Gaston Hospital] was primarily a charity hospital and a large percentage of the charity internees were Black." Yet Middlesworth wrote in a 1954 report that the "use of radiation in the very young organisms is open to question." And in an interview with Tribune staff writer Eileen Welsome he says, "Naturally we hoped there was no damage." But he also reveals that he lost track of the babies and never did any follow-up on their health.

John Gofman, a leading scientist on the effects of low-level radiation and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley put it plainly by saying the children would have an increased risk of getting cancer and "To do nothing is criminal..." To date officials have located the names of the babies involved (they would be in their late 30s now) and are in the process of contacting them, but DOE official Mike Gauldin admitted last December that his agency didn't "have any information about these specific experiments and don't know anything about them." Equally ominous is that five other similar experiments were carried out in Detroit, Michigan; Omaha, Nebraska; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Iowa City, Iowa, with a total of 235 newborns and older infants experimented on.

Creating and Cutting Blisters to inject Radioactive Mercury

For more than a decade, at least 300 African Americans, mostly female patients, were involved in 15 studies designed by researchers from Tulane University and Charity Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana that subjected them to swallowing radioactive capsules, being injected with radioactive mercury into laboratory created blisters that were intentionally cut open, enduring 118-degree heat and intentional diarrhea. Supposedly the studies were designed to see the effect of mercury for people with congestive heart failure. But the 300 black patients did not have the disease. Officials at the hospital claim the patients volunteered.

EImer Allen

Elmer Allen was an African-American Pullman porter who, because of a freak accident on a train, injured his leg which was diagnosed first as a fracture, then a lesion, and finally bone cancer. The treatment recommended was amputation. But on July 18, 1947, at the University of California Hospital at San Francisco, three days before his leg was amputated, Allen received an injection of plutonium 238 in the muscle of his leg. Though his injection of plutonium was a smaller dosage than the other 18 plutonium subjects, Allen's plutonium 238 dosage is considered "hotter" as it is more radioactive than plutonium 239. Further, due to Allen's amputation, approximately half of the plutonium 238 stayed in the remaining part of his leg resulting in his receiving six times the radiation for the average person. Allen was the last subject of 18 people injected with plutonium during the 1940s.

Officials who designed the study say that Allen was informed about the experiment and signed a consent form allowing them to make the plutonium injection, but a 1974 follow-up investigative study by the Atomic Energy Commission found that patients were not told plutonium was being injected into their bodies (Allen was told he was receiving a radioactive substance), relatives were not properly informed for requests to exhume bodies, and long-term survivors such as Allen, who lived decades after the injections, were not properly informed in 1973, the reason they were part of a follow-up study.

Denial of health insurance coverage on Sick Cell

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the government sponsored genetic screening and counseling for those who had sickle cell anemia, a disease that mainly affects African Americans. The program was stopped due to the African American community's suspicions and lack of participation. Its easy to see why: Some insurance companies were requiring their African American customers to take tests for sickle cell anemia. If they refused to take the test or tested positive, insurance coverage was denied.

Brain Surgery on African American Children

It was common practice in the early 1970s for Dr. O.J. Andy, a neurosurgeon in Mississippi to perform thalamotomies (a type of brain surgery that destroys part of the thalamus, an organ that analyzes sensations and governs feelings) on African American children who were termed aggressive and hyperactive. Some of the operations were performed on children as young as six.

Biomedical Control and Violence Centers in the Inner City

During the wave of urban uprisings in the 1960s the National Institute of Mental Health and the Justice Department funded research that looked into ways biomedical controls (i.e., brain surgery, genetic theories of violence prediction and control, behavior modification, to name a few) could be used to curb violence in the inner city--the black community. Moreover, according to Breggin, "Three Harvard professors...made the startling proposal that psychosurgery (brain mutilation) could be used to control not only urban rioters but some black leaders who allegedly suffered from brain damage and dysfunction." Proposals were also discussed in Congress for a "series of violence centers throughout the United States."

Dr. Frederick Goodwin and "Cities as Jungles."

In February of 1992, Dr. Frederick Goodwin, then head of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department's Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health administration, speaking at a meeting of The National Mental Health Advisory, made a series of remarks that rankles black health professionals to this day. According to Goodwin, youth violence was his "number one priority" and went on to say that his department would be looking into areas for controlling violence such as using drugs, biological markers through brain imaging, early detection and prevention, looking at genetic detection of violence and aggression through family studies, and so on. But the clincher came when he explained that the inner city had lost "some of the civilizing evolutionary things..." therefore... "It isn't just a careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities jungles. ." And, like adding salt to a wound, Goodwin then talked about "hyperaggressive monkeys who kill each other are also hypersexual..."

Though Goodwin was later "demoted" to a position heading the National Mental Institute of Health, fears multiplied as here was the nation's leading psychiatrist talking about a violence prevention project that would be part of a larger $400 million federal research program. The program has been shelved due to the controversy, and Goodwin rarely makes public appearances (he was forced to cancel a Los Angeles speech this past November because of protests), but he is still head of the NIMH and many questions regarding the direction and implementation of the various research projects under the umbrella of the Violence Initiative go unanswered.

In a January 31 Nation column Alexander Cockburn cites even more grim experiments on black people that was made public due to a Church of Scientology F.O.I.A. request during the 1970s. Cockburn describes a 1960 Army Chemical Corps experiment where misquitoes with yellow fever and dengue fever were dispersed in Savannah, Georgia and Avon Park, Florida. According to Cockburn, "Carver Village, which was exclusively black, was the target for these experiments. Residents at the time reported fevers, bronchitis, typhoid, encephalitis, stillbirths, also mysterious deaths."

From 1953 to 1958 Dr. Harris Isbell, of the National Institute of Mental Health Addiction Research Center, ran experiments giving black patients LSD. Cockburn quotes Dr. Isbell as writing: "The degree of rapport attained so far is not as great as we expect with white subjects. In all probability this type of behavior is to be expected with patients of this type. Perhaps the drug will break down some of the barriers. "

In 1951 the U.S. Army secretly contaminated the Norfolk Naval Supply Center and one ship with infectious bacteria. Cockburn again: "One of the bacteria types was chosen because blacks were more susceptible to it than whites."

The reader may sympathize with what we have presented so far and actually agree with our point regarding the racist reality African Americans have faced with medical research, yet still feel that effective safeguards are now in place so that the aforementioned atrocities can no longer happen. Moreover, one might also feel that whereas the issue of informed consent was a highly questionable practice 50,40, or even 30 years ago, surely it is not an issue now. Unfortunately this is not the case.

Space does not allow us to discuss in detail the current abuses that are making news, but a brief outline will show that racist medical research and practices thrives as much--if not more--today as it did in the past:

Last January it was learned that the federal government has launched a civil rights investigation into a drug testing program at a hospital located at the Medical University of South Carolina at Charleston. According to reports in the New York Times, hundreds of pregnant black women were tested for drugs without their consent and then threatened with jail unless agreeing to sign up for a drug treatment program. The program was designed to force drug-addicted women who are pregnant to stop taking drugs. In a few cases documented in a human experimentation complaint sent to the National Institute of Health by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in Manhattan, some of the women who refused treatment were arrested, handcuffed and/or leg-shackled to their hospital beds. The Times also said the complaint documents that the .".hospital failed to get approval for the program from the institute's Institutional Review Board, a requirement for the experiments. The hospital receives Federal financing, and in return agrees to report all experiments, and obtain approval from the review board before undertaking them. Doctors in the programs took data, set up control groups and published their results in a medical journal without getting approval from the women or from the review board "

Last November brought news of a medical study that documented black women who have hysterectomies have a far greater risk of hospitalization and of dying than white women. The study was the result at looking at over 50,000 hysterectomies in hospitals in Maryland from 1986 to 1991. After accounting for age, hysterectomy technique, severity of other medical conditions and other factors, black women still had a 40 per cent greater risk of complications of infections and unexplained fever than white women.

In a January issue of the American Journal of Public Health a study documents that pregnant black women were 20 per cent more likely than pregnant white women to report not being told by their doctors to stop smoking and 30 per cent more likely not being told to quit drinking. The study was authored by Dr. Kotelchuck and looked at racial disparities in prenatal care. Since black babies die twice as much as white babies before their first birthday, the study documents an astounding lack of good prenatal counseling given to black women, especially since drinking and smoking during pregnancy is well known to contribute to low birth weight, a definite risk factor.

In 1988 more than 200 black women were given Dilantin, a drug used to treat epilepsy, without their consent or knowledge. The doctors who gave the drug were studying its effect in women who were having cesarean section deliveries. So far no ill effects have been discovered to the pregnant women or their babies.

In 1984 researchers published a study in the Journal of Public Health documenting the lack of informed consent for Sickle Cell tests performed in Maryland. Out of 52,000 persons screened for Sickle Cell Anemia in 1980, 13,000 were screened without their consent. Sickle Cell Anemia is a disease that primarily affects African-Americans.

The end of the Cold War is proving only the beginning for the new war at home for shedding light on questionable scientific practices that, as many are now only reluctantly admitting, are as bad as anything the Nazis scientists and doctors did. Yet the Cold War radiation experiments along with all the other known and unknown experiments are just one more part of the sad history of Africans and African Americans where the medical profession forgets it's basic tenet: Do no harm; the Scientific establishment conveniently forgets informed consent; and our government funds medical and scientific research that harms and murders innocent and unsuspecting civilians in the name of "National Security. "