Details Emerge on Cold War Era Tests

As Revelations Continue, Controversy Could Focus on Compensation of Victims

The sickening revelations continue.

This week it was just a different school. More innocent retarded children, more overzealous scientists, more radioactivity, more unethical experiments.

Harvard University has so far been concretely linked to experiments with radiation on human subjects at two Massachusetts schools for the retarded. A handful of Harvard Medical School faculty were the culprits.

This week's latest revelation--that Harvard doctors used children as young as one-year-old in a Wrentham State School experiment to determine the human thresh-old for nuclear fallout--is particularly gutwrenching.

Advocates for the retarded have even likened the research to the Nazi atrocities of World War II.

And there are more revelations to come.

The Fernald State School in Waltham has been the early flashpoint. The late Harvard faculty member Dr. Clemens E. Benda fed children milk with radioactive tracers with their breakfast cereal as part of a nutrition study in the 1950s.

This much, the University and state officials have acknowledged. But news of other radioactive experiments at Fernald, which was used as a virtual colony for Harvard scientists in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, is just starting to break.

Yesterday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that a review of its files showed that Fernald was issued a license for another radiation research project in 1966.

It is not yet known if Harvard, which had extremely close ties to Fernald at that time, was involved in the 1966 research.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents included references to a requirement for parent-guardian consent. No other details about the tests were given.

The 1962 experiment at the Wrentham State School and the 1966 license for a two-year study are being scrutinized by the state's Department of Mental Retardation's task force, which was created to look into experiments on retarded children in the Cold War era.

Harvard, which has created a similar panel of its experts, will also look into the Wrentham experiment, according to Walter H. Abelmann, the committee chair. And if University scientists were involved the 1966 license is likely to draw the panel's attention.

In all, there were 43 cases prior to 1975 of NRC-sanctioned radiation testing on human subjects.

That means eventually, the investigations will end. All the experiments will be known, Most of the victims will be tracked down.

What then?

Advocates for the mentally retarded, who comprise a large segment of the radiation tests subjects of the Cold War era (prisoners and members of the military were most of the other victims), are calling for compensation.

The scientists who conducted the experiments and the agencies which authorized them should pay, advocates say--at the very least, for the long-term health-care of the victims. At best, compensation is necessary for the emotional pain and suffering which recent revelations of the experiments have caused, advocates say.

It is unclear whether the University might have to compensate victims. In both of the known experiments in which Harvard played a role, at least one other agency also sanctioned the experiment.

In the case of Benda's work at Fernald, the research was sponsored by the Quaker Oats Co. and isotopes were supplied by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's predecessor. MIT scientists also shared in the work at Fernald.

At Wrentham, the experiment was backed by the U.S. Public Health Service, Division of Radiological Health, Research Branch.

In both cases, the state schools worked side-by-side with the scientists.

This cooperation may ultimately be what gets Harvard off the compensation hook. The University could deny any liability, arguing that it was the federal government which first approved the research.

That, of course, doesn't answer the question of whether the University is responsible for what its employees do under its name.

Were officials at the state schools that sanctioned the experiments reassured by Harvard's reputation?

By saying they were from Harvard, did the researchers convey a tacit understanding that they were operating with the permission of the University?

Or did the University in fact authorize this work? Because some of the work was done by research fellows at the Medical School, it would have been reasonable for them to submit a proposal of their work and to seek some department approval.

As the University answers these questions, it will reach a point at which it must decide whether or not to act on its findings.

That decision will be closely watched. By the federal government, by the state, by medical ethicists, by advocates for the retarded. And by the victims.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.