April 10, 1951 A Dark Secret

In an age of informed consent and medical ethics review boards, it’s hard to imagine that human beings were once experimented upon, like lab mice.  

In 380BC, Plato’s “Republic” described a societal group possessed of Reason and destined to govern the ideal society, comprised of a second class ruled by “Spirit”, and a third in the thrall of “Appetite”.  This was the Greek philosopher’s “Guardian Class”, an elite and early prototype of a latter-day “Ubermensch”.

In the 19th century, Francis Galton studied the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin on the evolution of species, and applied these ideas to a system of selective breeding intended to bring “better” human beings into the world.  He called this his theory of “Eugenics”.

Eugenics gained worldwide respectability in the early 20th century, when nations from Brazil to Japan adopted policies concerning involuntary sterilization of certain mental patients, the socially “undesirable” and various collections of misfits and outcasts.

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“Better Babies” competitions sprang up at state fairs across the United States, where babies were measured, weighed, and “judged”. Like livestock. By the 1920s, such events had evolved into “Fitter Family” competitions.

The darker side of the Eugenics movement involved separating those deemed “inferior”, lest such persons be suffered to breed. By the height of the movement, some 30 states had passed legislation, legalizing involuntary sterilization of individuals considered “unfit” for reproduction. All told, some 60,000 American citizens were forcibly sterilized in state-sanctioned procedures.

The oldest public institution for the mentally disabled in the Western Hemisphere is the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, built in 1848.

Today, the place stands empty.  At its height, the 196-acres and 72 buildings of this place were home to some 2,500 “feeble minded boys”, a model for the education of the mentally disabled.  The institution’s third Superintendent Walter E. Fernald was a strong proponent of Eugenics.  The place was renamed in his honor in 1925,  the Walter E. Fernald State School later known as the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center.Walter_E._Fernald_State_School_-_IMG_1860-700x525

“Fernald” served a large population of the mentally disabled, along with a number of others who’d simply been abandoned by their parents.  The Boston Globe has reported as many as half the population, tested in the normal IQ range.

In an age of informed consent and medical ethics review boards, it’s hard to imagine that the government once experimented on its citizens, like lab mice.

The 40-year Tuskegee syphilis experiment begun in 1932 is an infamous example of unethical clinical research, in which 600 impoverished Americans of African ancestry were “studied” for the effects of untreated syphilis. Beginning in 1955 and continuing for fifteen years, medical researchers from NYU and Yale University intentionally infected mentally disabled children of the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island New York with Hepatitis A, in order to study disease progression and potential treatments.

At Fernald, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Quaker Oats Company came together in the study of radioactive oatmeal.  No, Really!

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Quaker Oats had been battling it out with Cream of Wheat since 1900, for a share of the lucrative hot cereal market. In the post WW2 period, Quaker alone rang up sales of $277 million. The Federal government’s dietary guidelines of 1943 elevated whole grains as an ideal source of nutrition, but there was a problem. Studies suggested that a naturally occurring cyclic acid called phytates contained in grains like oats, might inhibit the uptake of iron. Farina did not seem to have the same effect.

It was game, set and match to the Cream of Wheat people, and the stakes could not have been higher.

Enter, the “Science Club”.  Conditions were brutal at the Fernald School.  Boys were often deprived of meals or forced to do hard manual labor.  There have been allegations of physical and sexual abuse, forced solitary confinement and threats of lobotomy.

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74 boys joined the Science Club beginning in 1946,  more for the goodies than any idea of Science. There were parties and trips to watch Red Sox games, Mickey Mouse watches and lots of hot breakfasts with Quaker Oatmeal, laced with radioactive tracers.

It was the dawn of the nuclear age.  Some 210,000 civilians and GIs were subjected to nuclear radiation, without their knowledge or consent.

So it was that Quaker provided the oats, MIT received funding for the research, and the Fernald School supplied the…er…”Mice”.  By this day in 1951, such experiments were only half-way through.

“In the three experiments, the boys at Fernald ate oats coated with radioactive iron tracers, milk with radioactive calcium tracers (radioactive atoms whose decay is measured to understand chemical reactions happening in the body), and were given injections of radioactive calcium. The first two experiments’ results were encouraging to Quaker: Oatmeal was no worse than farina when it came to inhibiting absorption of iron and calcium into the bloodstream. The third experiment showed that calcium entering the bloodstream goes straight to the bones, which would prove important in later studies of osteoporosis”. – Hat tip, Smithsonian.com

Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary declassified a number of Atomic Energy Commission documents in 1993, resulting in a lawsuit in ’95.  In a hearing before the United States Senate, MIT’s David Litster claimed the experiment exposed the boys to no more than 170 – 330 millirems of radiation, about the same as 30 consecutive chest x-rays.

In January 1998, 30 former “students” settled with the Quaker Oats Company and MIT, for $1.37 Million.  President Bill Clinton apologized on behalf of the Federal Government, and the AEC.

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By 2001, the Fernald School was home to only 320 mentally disabled adults, aged 27 to 96 years.  By the time it closed, the cost to the Massachusetts taxpayer was $1 million per year,  per resident.  The last patient was discharged on November 13, 2014, following a protracted legal battle which cost Massachusetts taxpayers another forty million dollars.

Today the place stands empty.  A dark and crumbling monument, to the legacy of government “Health Care”.

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