Harvard Scientists Used Children In 1962 Nuclear Fallout Study

State Official Condemns Test; Toddlers Fed Large Doses of Radioactive Iodine

In 1961 and 1962, a Medical School assistant professor and a Harvard researcher gave large doses of radioactive iodine to "mentally defective" children ages one to 11 in an attempt to determine the consequences of nuclear fallout.

The children in the experiment attended the Wrentham State School for the retarded, which is administered by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation.

The experiment was brought to light by a Medical School professor who came across a published study of the experiment last week while preparing for a lecture, Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs Jane H. Corlette said last night. The study was mentioned in a footnote the professor saw, she said.

The experiment, made public yesterday by the state and by Harvard, links at least two more University scientists to government-sanctioned tests with radiation conducted on retarded children.

A late Harvard professor, Dr. Clemens E. Benda, performed tests with radiation at the Fernald State School in Waltham.

Benda's experiments involved using radioactive tracers in milk as a way of monitoring the calcium uptake of the retarded students. While ethicists have objected to the Benda tests because students were not notified of the radiation used, medical experts say the amount of radiation did not pose a health threat.

A Harvard task force is examining the University's involvement in Cold War era radiation experiments, including those at Fernald and at Wrentham. Harvard turned the Wrentham study over to the mental retardation department along with a series of other documents on Friday.

A department task force, which is also investigating the Fernald experiments, interrupted its ongoing probe yesterday to issue an angry press release condemning the experiment.

"For government researchers concerned about radioactive fallout to use institutionalized two-year-old children is an insult to the children, their families and to every individual concerned with individual rights and dignity," Frederick Misilo Jr., chair of the task force and the department's deputy commissioner, said in a prepared statement.

"I am deeply troubled by these revelations," Misilo said.

This most recent experiment was performed over a four-month period in 1961 and 1962 at the state school in Wrentham, a suburb located an hour's drive south of Boston.

The study, sponsored by the U.S. government's Public Health Service Division of Radiological Health, was published in Science magazine in October 1962, the same month as the Cuban missile crisis.

Harvard, in response to the state task force's condemnations, issued its own statement yesterday.

"There are serious and troubling questions about why children at an institution such as the Wrentham School werechosen to participate in this research," thestatement said.

"We are committed to exploring these questionsnot only through continued cooperation with the[Department of Mental Retardation] task force, butalso through a special Harvard faculty committeethat has been formed to review research involvinghuman subjects in decades past."

The state has set up an 800 telephone line forformer Wrentham School residents and theirfamilies to call if they have questions of believethey may have been involved in the experiments.The number is 1 800 377-9237.

The Harvard affiliates involved in the Wrenthamexperiment were Dr. Kirshna M. Saxena, a Harvardresearch fellow, and Dr. Earle M. Chapman, anassistant professor of clinical medicine at theMedical School.

Dr. Charles V. Pryles, director of medicalservices at the Wrentham school and an affiliateof the Boston University School of Medicine, alsoparticipated in the tests.

Chapman died in 1990, Saxena has moved toMinnesota and Pryles has not been located, Harvardofficials said yesterday.

Saxena did not return a phone call to his home.

A preliminary review suggests that Saxena wasnot particularly interested in the research, whichwas not in his primary field of study, accordingto Corlette But Corlette added that the researchfellow had free time and was willing to assist.

The scientists gave 63 children at Wrentham adaily dose of radioactive sodium iodine rangingfrom 100 to 1000 micrograms. In the publishedstudy, the researchers called the children"mentally defective."

"We chose this population of children becauseit was desirable to secure children living underconstant conditions of environment, diet anduptake," the researchers wrote in the study, whichwas carried out between December 14,1961 and April14,1962.

The experiment examined the possibility ofincreasing the body's ability to absorb theeffects of nuclear fallout by administeringsmaller doses to increase tolerance levels. Thechildren were grouped into three age categoriesfor the test.

Michael Whalen, a Harvard physicist who worksat the University's Department of EnvironmentalHealth and Safety, said the effect of theradioactive iodine would depend on the isotope'sconcentration.

High concentrations of the idodine-131 used inthe experiment can lead to thyroid cancer, Whalensaid.

"It's not something you really want to do,"Whalen said. "Personally, I probably wouldn't doit."

Whalen called the experiment "just one more ofthose experiments of the 1960s and 1950s thatyou've been reading about."

Government approval for the study was obtainedlikely because of Cold War fears about the dangersposed by nuclear fallout.

"The release of radioactivity into theatmosphere from nuclear explosions in the recentpast has created an acute awareness of the problemof human protection from such radiation," thestudy says. "Radioactive iodine is one of theprinciple contaminants in fallout."

Misilo said the current investigation isimportant because such tests should not to bereplicated.

"This information which the [state] Task Forceis bringing to light reinforces each member'scommitment to ensuring this kind of activity neverhappens again," said Misilo, who is heading thetask force.

Misilo also said the question of consent willbe vital in investigating the experiments atWrentham and Fernald.

"The Task Force has poured over literallythousands of pages of documents since our workbegan in January," Misilo said, "We will bereviewing archival records and other documents todetermine what kind of informed consentprocedures, if any, were used in this study."

Harvard officials said they learned of thestudy only very recently. Corlette said Harvardhas so far located no additional documentsconcerning the research in question. A search ofChapman's papers has also turned up nothing,Corlette said.

Corlette said Harvard officials were"surprised" to learn that the state had issued apress release about the experiment. Harvard'sstatement came in response to the state's release.

Corlette also said she understood the need topublicize the mental retardation department's 800telephone number.

"At lest some past or present residents of theWrentham School and their families may be learningabout this research for the first time," theHarvard statement said. "We very much regret theanxiety this news may cause them."

"Please know that we are working cooperativelywith the Task Force and others to understand moreabout the research, to seek the identity of theparticipants, and to asses any possible risks totheir health."

"However small the tracer doses of radiationinvolved, the research raises important questionsabout why the residents of the Wrenthem Schoolwere chosen to participate, and we are determinedto purse those questions in light of all availableinformation."

The number of studies which used radioactivematerials and involved former residents ofDepartment of Mental Retardation facilities nowtotals 12, Misilo said. This latest revelationwill be included in the state task force's reporton the experiments, which is due out March 31.

Misilo said the task force now only haspublished research.

"The article raises many questions such as howmuch radiation was involved, what were the longterm health effects on the individuals, whoparticipated in the tests, and were they or theirguardians fully informed about the true nature ofthe tests," Misilo said.

"We don't have answers yet, but our task forcewill attempt to answer these questions," he said.

The published study suggests that staff atWrentham were supportive or helpful in the tests.But it does not disclose whether the youngchildren were aware of the dangers of theradioactive iodine.

"This study...would have been impossiblewithout the full cooperation of the staff of theWrentham State Hospital," the study states.CrimsonDavid A. SobelRadiation Dosages This table shows thenumber of children in each age group their dailydose off iodine. Doses are given in micrograms..