Holding Scientists and Medical Researchers Accountable for Unethical Human Testing, Part 3: Massachusetts, Ground Zero

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission has its own coin.
If someone slaps down this coin, I have questions. (Public domain image/Wikimedia Commons)

This series explores the experiments conducted on Americans without their full knowledge or consent from the mid-19th Century to today. Testing on animals garners more outcry and more legal protection than testing on human beings. Subjects have ranged from military members and prisoners to men, women, and children in populations marginalized by race or mental incapacity. In a few instances, such as observing syphilis in Alabaman sharecroppers without ever allowing them access to the cure, testing atomic weapons over the Marshall Islands and its people, or trying to mind-control soldiers and citizens through all types of physical and emotional abuse, Congressional committees concluded that experimenting on humans without securing their fully informed consent was wrong. So, the government-backed scientists and medical researchers did what they always do when light is shined on their transgressions: They hid their activities by changing agency names, outsourcing projects to non-government organizations, or calling the project something else. Not even a scapegoat was offered to assuage public disapproval. Anyone who experiments on a human without their consent, including injecting them with a gene-altering vaccine, needs to be arrested and tried for medical battery and crimes against humanity.

Here’s what we’ve covered so far:

Holding Scientists and Medical Researchers Accountable for Unethical Human Testing, Part 1: J. Marion Sims, The Father of Gynecology

Holding Scientists and Medical Researchers Accountable for Unethical Human Testing, Part 2: Roberts Bartholow and the Brain Invaders

Today we look at what used to be considered the epicenter of advanced medical care: The Hub, Boston proper and Massachusetts in general. The Bay State is also a mecca of advanced learning institutions, including Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and others. Although the government continues conducting experiments on humans, for the most part, it backs approximately 80 institutions to do the dirty work for it. What that means is that human experimentation, the majority of which—at least in the past—was unethical, is carried out by science and medical laboratories within universities. Look around campus and you can bet that at least one building was funded by the government for unethical experimentation on human beings. MIT and Harvard feature highly in those experiments, as Annie Jacobsen has made clear in at least four of her books, “Area 51,” “Operation Paperclip,” “The Pentagon’s Brain,” and “Phenomena,” all of which cover in depth the U.S. government’s experimenting on its citizens.

Usually, those citizens are marginalized in some manner. Prisoners and military members are often top picks because they have little say in what is done to them and few rights. But women, children, and the mentally or physically handicapped are all frequent test subjects. More often than not, the subject had no idea what they were being exposed to, or if they did, they agreed to participate either under false pretenses, like the Tuskegee sharecroppers who were not even informed of their syphilis diagnosis, or with the promise of care, also like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study men, who were not only denied medical treatment but actively prevented from receiving it on their own. All of this was made possible through the illiteracy of the test population and their limited access to media.

Take the parents of mentally disabled boys at the Water E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass. If they knew that from 1946 to 1953 their kids were being fed radioisotopes in their breakfast oatmeal, they might have objected. Most didn’t know, or if they had any inkling, they were helpless to stop anything because they were dependent on the school caring for a developmentally handicapped child they could not care for themselves. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in tandem with Quaker Oats, fed 73 mentally challenged boys oatmeal with radioactive milk “to study how nutrients were digested.” The boys only knew they were joining a “science club.” Make no mistake, the Fernald School was named for a strong proponent of eugenics, Walter E. Fernald. Eugenicists want all mentally and physically disabled people eliminated from society. They do not care that God sometimes uses the mentally and physically disabled to add joy, love, challenge, and testing to His children, namely their parents and siblings. Observe any family with a disabled member and more likely than not, if the family is grounded in faith, it will be stronger, more mature, more patient, more appreciative of life. Eugenicists see the sole contribution of abnormal children to society as test subjects.

But the history of testing unwitting humans in Massachusetts has a far earlier history. In 1896, Dr. Arthur Wentworth wanted to know if conducting spinal taps on babies would be harmful, so he just went ahead and conducted 29 of them without the knowledge or consent of their parents. Where did he do this? Children’s Hospital Boston, now with the Boston up front, Boston Children’s Hospital. A spinal tap, or lumbar puncture, is known as a “contraindication” in the medical community, meaning that it’s usually inadvisable. A sterile syringe is injected into the spinal column to extract fluid to test for central nervous system issues, such as meningitis. Even under the best of circumstances, it causes a severe headache that often produces vomiting. Worst-case scenario is that the procedure causes bleeding problems. Judging by the results of the first case, in which a 2-year-old girl thrashed in her bed and cried for 45 minutes after removal of spinal fluid, Wentworth at least had a tinge of angst. He thought she might die; she did not, and I guess that gave him tacit permission to carry on. I’ve had a spinal. I was in bed for a week and upon first elevating my head, I puked. They’ve not improved on the method. 

At the turn of the 20th Century U.S. Army medical professionals in the Philippines decided they would infect five prisoners with bubonic plague, a.k.a. “black death” with its fevers, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes. They also induced beriberi in 29 others, one can only assume by lowering their thiamine levels below those of the test subject who presented with the disease. There are two kinds of beriberi, “wet” affecting the cardiovascular system and “dry” attacking the nervous system. Enter professor of tropical medicine at Harvard University Richard P. Strong, who infected 24 Filipino prisoners with cholera, which—oops—somehow, someway, was contaminated with bubonic plague. Strong did not inform his subjects of what he was doing, never mind got their consent. All 24 got severely ill and 13 died. But he did “significant work” in these medical diseases. Too bad he wasn’t more of a slacker.

Our next example from the Cradle of Liberty concerns Dr. William Sweet and the experiments he conducted between 1953 and 1957 at Massachusetts General Hospital, or as it’s usually referred to, Mass General. He injected 11 terminally ill, comatose, and semi-comatose subjects with uranium. He wanted to know if uranium could be used as a viable chemotherapy treatment for brain tumors, of which all the patients were suffering. However, that was not the only thing he was tracking. The problem here is that if someone is dying, can experimental medicine be practiced on them? I would say yes, but only if they consent to being a test subject and are fully informed about what will happen, how it might help, and how it might harm. What do they have to lose? They have only their lives to gain. Sweet maintained until his death in 2001 that he had consent from the patients, the patients who were in comas or semi-comas and their next of kin. I suspect he means solely from next of kin, and again, if the experimentation could possibly help their dying loved one, why not? We’ll cut Sweet some slack, but is it just me that thinks shooting people up with uranium is just a bad idea in general?

Next, we have a clear-cut case of the U.S. government working in partnership with a private entity, in this case the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Between 1961 and 1965, 20 people were selected from the Age Center of New England for a so-called research project on aging. These people were given 0.2-2.4 microcuries (7.4-88.8 kBq) of radium-224 and 1.2-120 microcuries (44-4,440 kBq) of thorium-234. I will need to do more research on how dangerous those doses are, but again is making people ingest radioactive materials really a good idea?

In the late 1940s, researchers at Harvard University began testing diethylstilbestrol, which is a man-made estrogen, on pregnant women at the University of Chicago’s Lying-In Hospital. Miscarriages and low-birth-weight babies skyrocketed. None of the women knew they were being experimented on. This brings up a more recent concern. Since its first use in the 1960s, you have generations of women on birth control pills, test subjects if you will for artificial hormones, while simultaneously checking the eugenics box by distributing them free of charge to “undesirable” populations, which make no mistake includes poor white as well as any other race.

Edwin Joseph Cohn was a biochemist at Harvard University. In 1942, he injected 64 prisoners in Massachusetts with cow blood. It was part of an experiment sponsored by the U.S. Navy. I don’t know what it was all about, and at this point, I’m not sure I want to know. You can only take in so much of this evil, before you need to go outside and do something with your hands. So many victims; so little accountability. How do we stop it? How do we allow for true medical and scientific research without harming people? Print a 3D “human” and go to town? Should there still be ethical concerns? Medical ethics: a booming field in the age of artificial intelligence, transhumanism, and posthumanism. Humanity itself demands we find our moral compass, tout de suite.

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