Radioactive Oatmeal for Fernald Boys
another verse in the human history of dehumansation
Mr. Markey: Could I just add, just following up here on Dr. Lister for a second, if I may, before we move on. Just so I can understand, you know, what the point is, earlier we were hearing Dr. Brill say that he would be willing to take those doses, even today. And that's fine.
But it leaves a misimpression, and the impression it leaves, well, it is not harmful. What you are saying is, Dr. Lister, is that there was in fact a higher likelihood of contraction of cancer that would be incurred by those children from that time on, because they had been experimented upon, is that correct?
Mr. Lister: Yes, I think that's the currently accepted opinion. I would defer to some of the experts on that, but I believe the conservative view is that any exposure to radiation does convey some additional risk of cancer. —Human Subjects Research: Radiation Experimentation, Senate Committee Hearings, 1994
Radioactive refers to the process, production and energy generated from the splitting of atoms. Radioactive isotopes are unstable forms of an element that emit easily traceable radiation and mark substances is comes into contact with, this is useful for tracing fluids and elements.
In Waltham, Massachusetts between 1946 and 1953, at Walter E Fernald State School, a group of researchers lead by biochemist Robert S. Harris studied the effects of radioactive isotopes on the metabolism of iron and calcium in a group of institutionalised boys diagnosed with mental and behavioural disabilities. Test subjects recruited from Fernald State School received cereal containing radioactive tracers of iron from 1946 to 1949 and then from 1950 to 1953 test subjects received radioactive calcium isotopes via injection or orally. Amongst MIT researchers and students Fernald went by another name, the zoo. Researchers saw the school as a fertile ground for human experimentation because the low social status of its residents meant their lives had less human value. Like animals provided convenient test subjects for medical experimentation so did disabled boys living in a facility for the mentally retarded.
The Senate Committee Hearings provide limited details about the experiments themselves. During the first phase of Fernald’s radioactive experiments in 1946, 17 boys received cereal and milk containing radioactive isotopes of iron. According to the testimony of MIT’s Dr. Lister each boy received an average of 230 mrems of radiation per dose of iron. That’s the equivalent of 115 CXRs. The boys received either Cream of Wheat or Quaker Oats and the study would determine whether quicks oats or farina had any impact on iron metabolism. During the second phase, which began in 1950, 36 boys received an extra breakfast of cereal and milk, which contained radioactive isotopes of calcium. During the third phase 9 boys received injections of radioactive isotopes.
I located the published findings of the iron study. I also located the published findings of the 3 calcium studies: low dose calcium, moderate-dose calcium, and IV calcium. You can find the full copy of the IV radioactive calcium paper above. One of the oral calcium papers reports 19 boys receiving 2 bowls of cereal and milk containing radioactive calcium. The second paper reports 17 boys receiving 2 bowls of cereal and milk containing radioactive calcium.
Based on the information provided in the three published radioactive calcium papers, during the radioactive calcium experiments a total of 20 subjects, 47 boys and 1 young adult male, received the equivalent of 250 CXRs of radiation per dose.1 During the Committee Hearings a figure of 30 CXRs equivalent of radiation was given by the physics expert who didn’t seem to have the precise dosage figures on hand. Suffice it to say the experiments exposed the boys to a lot a radiation, in a manner directly invasive to the body. The full text paper describes an experiment funded by The Quaker Oats Company and US Atomic Energy, the study design divided subjects into two groups. Five subjects received a daily injection of the radioactive isotope into their antecubital vein and the remaining 4 received an oral dose of the radioactive isotope. After 30 days the groups switched, enabling each subject to serve as his own control. All subjects received an daily additional serving of Quaker Oats Cereal with the equivalent of a glass of milk throughout the study.
Braced in a battle for control of the cereal market against Cream of Wheat, Quaker Oats funded the study because it had an interest in the results, which would confirm whether or not phytate-rich plant-based cereals such quick oats impaired the metabolic uptake of iron + calcium. Researchers reported success when their results revealed that phytate-rich cereals did not impair calcium or iron metabolism. World class researchers conducted these experiments according to the ethical standards of the time. The study designers obtained consent, they did not obtain informed consent. What seems unthinkable in today's era of ethics review boards and informed consent was standard procedure at the dawning of the Atomic Age, reports Lorraine Boissoneault in Smithsonian Magazine. Despite the realities revealed at Nuremberg, only after the Tuskegee experiments did America get serious about ethical standards for human clinical trials.
For the modern-day observer, obvious problems with this study concept, design, and method of execution emerge. Financed by company eager to gain market advantage, conducted by researchers under the influence of Cold Era arrogance and paranoia, and inflicted upon a vulnerable population expecting the state to provider care and not make them lab animals—the radioactive oatmeal experiment spells exploitation. Researchers exploited a vulnerable + captive population. The study offered no obvious benefit to the subjects and exposed them to obvious unknown risks. Researchers overstated benefits and understated risks, failed to explain procedure, made no effort to ensure that the boys or their parents understood what would happen, and did not disclose the study purpose.
The Oatmeal Experiment came to light as part of a massive declassification of documents and an internal investigation into secret human experimentation conducted by the military under the atomic energy program. Whilst test subjects themselves received no benefit and arguably received iatrogenic harm, the study provided findings that lead to further important clinical discovery in the study of Calcium metabolism + treatment of osteoporosis. The radioactive oatmeal experiments raise questions about the ethics of paediatric clinical trials — children have unique metabolisms, they have slower absorption and delayed clearing time of metabolites and this unique physiology factors into research design, in particular when it comes to ingestion or injection of radioactive substances.
On the other side of the paywall I will go into further detail about the Fernald State School, a designated eugenic institutes for the feeble-minded, and describe some of its tragic history. I will describe a social culture and primary care context makes the oatmeal experiments particularly repugnant in their exploitation, and the nonchalance of the MIT staff callous. Residential care facilities provided a dream pool of subjects—a controlled residential setting where intake and output can be monitored and analyzed for study. I’ll discuss the issue of consent and research ethics in the context of Nuremberg and I’ll discuss the Senate Committee Hearings and the reactions of two survivors of the radioactive experiments and the iatrogenic harm done.
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