From the archives: the Walter E. Fernald State School experiments

The Walter E Fernald State School was an institution in Massachusetts set up as a home for children with learning difficulties. The school faced controversy for much of its existence, in particular due to its association with the eugenics movement and reports of abuse.

The school was also the site of experiments investigating the effect of radiation on human beings. The experiments, carried out by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with sponsorship from the Quaker Oats company, involved subjecting children in the school to radiation, administered in a variety of ways including hiding it in food and injection. Many of the children – and their parents – were not fully informed on the nature of the experiments, and in some cases, not informed at all.

I’m sure there is some logic which makes “let’s irradiate retarded kids and see what happens” sound like something resembling a good idea. It is, however, a mystery to me.

An article from MIT’s paper “The Tech”, reporting on investigations and lawsuits around the experiments in the 1990s, describes the situation:

According to the lawsuit filed by former Fernald Science Club member Ronald Beaulieu, MIT violated the civil rights of at least 54 institutionalized children at the Walter E. Fernald School in Waltham, Mass. The researchers fed children doses of radiation with their breakfast cereal for the purpose of studying the way the body absorbs calcium and iron. The experiments were often performed without the informed consent of the subjects or their families.

At the Oct. 3 news conference that announced the completion of the committee’s nearly 1,000-page report, Clinton made a formal apology to the thousands of subjects of radiation experiments reviewed by the committee.

The report stated that children at the Fernald School were “unfairly burdened” by researchers from MIT and Harvard, who encouraged the children to take part in tests with promises of gifts or trips to Red Sox games.

The researchers also appeared “unwilling to respect” some children’s wishes not to participate in experiments, according to the report. The parents of the children involved in the experiments were not told that the tests involved radiation.

A 1994 article from Harvard gives further details:

In 1953, Benda, who was a Harvard faculty member until the late 1960s, wrote Fernald parents seeking permission to include their sons in the experiments. One letter says the children had “volunteered” to participate in the tests. In another, Benda says the absence of consent by parents or guardians would be taken as an assumption that permission had been granted.

Benda never mentioned that radioactivity would be used in the tests.

Then, in 1957, Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Hospital researchers studied the thyroid function of 21 students and seven parents at Fernald using doses of radioactive tracer high enough to cause “serious concern,” according to the state task force report.

And at a state school for the retarded in Wrentham, Mass., two Harvard scientists used children as young as one year old in a 1961-62 experiment to determine the human threshold for nuclear fallout.

In 1998, MIT and the Quaker Oats company paid $1.85 million compensation to people who were subjected to experiments as part of the program.

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