“…and she told the other nurse, “Oh my God, I’ve given him too much!” —from “Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed”

Greg Reese at Antelope Valley News has written about the early radiation experiments conducted in 1927 on black children at Lyles Station, Indiana. These hideous experiments are part of a largely unexamined legacy of illegal human experimentation, much of it conducted on African-Americans, and other minorities, and also on prisoners.

A 2009 documentary tells the story of one of these children, now deceased, Vertus Hardiman. These experiments took off Hardiman’s scalp… literally. But Hardiman wasn’t the only victim, nor the Lyles Station experiments the last. As Reese tells it:

One cannot help but be repulsed by the cruelty of such procedures, especially their application to young children, but this was not an isolated case. Similar research occurred in 1951 on a much larger scale has been uncovered in the then-fledgling state of Israel. Like the Lyles Station incident, where all the affected children were Black, racial overtones abounded since fair-skinned Ashkenazi Jews of European origin administered radiation to upwards of 100,000 Sephardic Jewish children who were refugees from Morocco.

The Ashkenazis served as proxies for Robert Oppenheimer, his Manhattan Project, and the U.S. government, who underwrote the program because they were eager to utilize a convenient pool of guinea pigs for further testing in the wake of their successful atomic bombings at the close of World War II. Sephardic Jews differ visually from their Ashkenazi brethren by virtue of their darker, olive skin tone.

Still more episodes of radiation bombardment were conducted throughout the 1960s at what is now the University of Cincinnati on some 90 working-class citizens, of which two-thirds were Black. During the Clinton Administration these and other Cold War experiment programs were reviewed to determine restitution suitability and the need for formal apologies.


For more information on the U.S. history on human experiments, see Eileen Welsome’s The Plutonium Files; Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet Washington; and Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison by Allen M. Hornblum.

Hornblum wrote an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer last March after President Obama’s commission on bioethics, hastily assembled last year after the scandals over U.S. health department experiments on syphilis conducted on Guatemalan subjects in the 1940s, began their meetings. [See update below]  Hornblum, who is an expert on the history of unethical human research wrote:

Medical excesses and breaches of research ethics are not just things of the distant past. They still occur and will continue until the penalties exceed the incentives to cut corners and break the rules. The national bioethics commission can foster that goal by not only explaining what went wrong 60 years ago, but by also aggressively pushing recommendations that punish transgressors, keep a vigilant eye on clinical trials both here and abroad, and encourage medical schools and others to bring research ethics out of the basement and into the classroom.

I wrote a letter to the Inquirer in response to Hornblum’s op-ed. It was never published, but here it is in its entirety:

Dear Editor,

As someone who has been investigating research ethics issues involving the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community, I wish to applaud Mr. Hornblum’s excellent op-ed (“Research ethics require action and vigilance,” March 20, 2011) concerning the deliberations of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. He makes a number of important points, noting particularly that “Medical excesses and breaches of research ethics are not just things of the distant past.”

In an investigatory piece last year with the journalist Jason Leopold, I documented threats by the Defense Research and Engineering component of the Department of Defense to shut down all DoD-related research by the end of 2004 if the requisite assurances of adherence to ethical guidelines were not submitted to it by the end of that year. We do not know what precipitated this threat and DRE review, and attempts to find out from DoD elicited only a “no comment.”

But we do know that in 2002 Paul Wolfowitz had loosened the requirements for waivers of informed consent among DoD researchers. Between that time and 2004, there was little or no oversight over DoD research policies at exactly the time when both DoD and CIA were engaged in an experimental torture program, using detainee prisoners as human guinea pigs for the study of the effects of torture and harsh detention.

Any serious government review of bioethical issues would certainly include a look at government-related research, which also has a long history of serious ethical breaches, from the CIA MKULTRA experiments of the 1950s and 1960s, through the Department of Energy’s radiation experiments, and the Defense Deparment’s Project SHAD nerve gas experiments. It would also include a look at possible experiments done on detainees in the past ten years.

I hold out little hope that the government will address these issues seriously, and share Mr. Hornblum’s concern that the results of this commission will be yet another whitewash and blue ribbon attempt to stuff these serious issues back into the closet of public ignorance and governmental indifference.

Jeffrey Kaye, Ph.D.

Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., Chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, told the press they believe they will have a report ready for the President this summer. The commission met on May 18-19, and their next meeting is slated for Aug. 29-30, 2011 (though no agenda for that meeting is yet posted).

More coverage on commission hearings can be found at PrisonPlanet, which has been following the earlier Commission meetings.

Update, 5/27/11: Jonathan Moreno, Professor of Medical Ethics and of History and Sociology of Science, and a part-time staffer for the Presidential Bioethics Commission, writes to correct my notion, and that of others who have written on the Commission, that it was “hastily assembled” after the revelations on the Guatemalan syphilis experiments. According to Dr. Moreno, “Actually the commission was in operation for a nearly year before that project started, working on the synthetic biology report, and was then assigned the Guatemala issue.”

Indeed, the Commission was enabled via executive order in November 2009 (PDF of Executive Order). The Commission has a webpage describing the history of bioethics commissions in general.

The following is from a FAQ page the Commission has posted (PDF) describing “FAQ about the Commission’s Investigation into U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) supported research on sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala from 1946-1948 involving the intentional infection of vulnerable human populations.”  As explained in the FAQ, an international research panel was established on March 1, 2011 that will report to the Commission. It is this panel that was, in my opinion, and evidently, as a response to the Guatemalan scandal.

On November 24, 2010, President Obama directed his Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCSBI), beginning in January, to “oversee a thorough fact-finding investigation into the specifics” of the USPHS supported research. A copy of the President’s charge to the Commission can be seen here: http://www.bioethics.gov/documents/Human-Subjects-Protection-Letter-from-President-Obama-11.24.10.pdf

The Commission’s fact-finding review is underway….

Records are being examined in archives across the United States, including the National Archive and Records Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention archives at Morrow, Georgia, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), successor organization to the Pan American Sanitary Bureau, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Virginia, the National Library of Medicine, and the National Academies. Records are being sought also from relevant agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and State. An independent physician will review individual medical records. Records from the Government of Guatemala may also be requested in the near future….

President Obama also asked the Bioethics Commission to conduct a review of the adequacy of human subjects protection across the international field of research. Specifically, he asked PCSBI to convene an international panel to review current U.S. Government regulations and international standards and consider if they adequately guard the health and well-being of participants in scientific studies supported by the U.S. Government.

The International Research Panel was announced on March 1 and it will report to the Commission. It includes 14 leaders from the bioethics and medical/science communities. A majority of members come from outside the U.S., including one person from Guatemala. Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., Chair of PCSBI, will lead the International Research Panel. The Panel will meet at least 2-3 times in the next five months and at least once overseas. A copy of the press release announcing the Panel can be seen here: http://www.bioethics.gov/news/2011/03/presidentsbioethics- commission-names-international-research-panel.html

Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.