State Report Says Radiation Tests Violated Subjects' Rights
Harvard Faculty, Researchers Implicated in Cold War Era Experimentation; State Says Subjects Should Be Compensated
WALTHAM, Mass.--A state report released today here at the Walter E. Fernald State School finds that Harvard and MIT researchers conducted experiments with radiation "in violation of the fundamental human rights" of scores of retarded students during the 1940s '50s and '60s.
The report, which details the use of radioactive materials in human subject research from 1943 to 1973, recommends that "all participants...should be compensated for any and all damage incurred as a result of the studies."
Frederick M. Misilo Jr., the chair of the state Task Force to Review Human Subject Research, said the nutrition studies conducted at Fernald in the 1940s and '50s caused "no significant health effects" to the tests subjects.
But the task forced recommended that the test subjects be entitled to federal benefits for any medical diagnoses and treatments related to the experiments.
"The call for compensation stems from the findings that there were violations of basic rights in the research," Misilo said.
Documents included in the report as well as others obtained by The Crimson show that the tests were led by the late Dr. Clemens E. Benda, who was Fernald's medical director at the time and also a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School.
David White-Lief, a member of the task force and chair of the Fernald Human Rights Committee, said Harvard and MIT should bear part of the costs of compensation.
"I think Harvard should pay," he said. "I think MIT should pay. I think the Commonwealth of Massachusetts should pay. They violated the rights of those people."
But Misilo and all other task force members declined to say whether Harvard and MIT should contribute to any compensation.
"Harvard and MIT played a role. The researchers were from these institutions But [compensation] as a question which has to be decided by others. Harvard and MIT were involved...It's a question of people who have the means," Misilo said. When asked, he declined to say whether he considered Harvard and MIT institutions which "have the means."
The task force used records donated to Harvard by Benda's estate to identify 57 subjects of nutrition experiments.
In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Harvard had extraordinarily close ties to Fernald, according to a 1959 report. Scores of Medical School, School of Public Health and other graduate students attended annual lectures, workshops and demonstrations at the school.
Acting Vice President for Government Community and Public Affairs Jane H. Corlette said today in a telephone interview that she could not discuss the report or its findings until she had read it. "It's way too early to comment," Corlette said.
A statement released this afternoon by the University news office said Harvard officials are still reviewing the report.
"It's too early to speculate," said University spokesperson Joe Wrinn, the only Harvard official who attended this morning's press conference at which the task force released the report.
J. David Litster, vice president and dean for research at MIT, indicated he did not think his institution will have to compensate test subjects.
"I think the task force concluded that no harm was done," Litster said.
Asked by reporters to explain how such basic violations of human rights might have happened, Department of Mental Retardation Commissioner Philip Campbell said discrimination against disabled people had been the main factor.
"The most overriding issue is that people with disabilities are often devalued in society," said Campbell, who established the task force.
In an awkward moment for the task force, Charles Dyer, a subject of one of Benda's experiments and a task force member, appeared to question some of the report's findings. Dyer, 53, said he thought it was possible that test subjects had suffered health effects and wondered whether the government or universities might be covering up the existence of similar experiments.
"We were brought up here to be taught things and to learn. But we were used, and I don't think that's right," said Dyer, now a truck driver receiving workers compensation. "It seems like everything is being covered up."
Austin LaRocque, a 53-year-old construction worker, was Dyer's friend and also a test subject during his nine years at Fernald. He said the publicity resulting from the state investigation has hurt his career and personal life.
"This has affected me in many ways. It has affected my family," said LaRocque, a member of the task force. "I had to use an assumed name and I've lost jobs because of this school [Fernald]."
LaRocque and Dyer were both members of the so-called "Fernald Science Club," a group of students enticed with trips and parties to participate in the tests.
"The provision of special rewards...otherwise unavailable to individuals confined in an institutionalized setting...resulted in the research subjects being unfairly enticed by those conducting the research," the report states in one of its 11 findings.
Task force members also vehemently condemned a series of theyroid experiments and a nuclear fallout study conducted at other state schools for the retarded.
Misilo said he was "particularly horrified" at the nuclear fallout experiment conducted "on babies" at the Wrentham State School in Wrentham, Mass. A Harvard Medical School assistant professor and a Harvard researcher conducted the 1961 experiment in which they fed "mentally defective" children aged one to 11 small doses of radioactive iodine.
White-Lief said researchers delegated the task schools' superintendents, thereby failing to ensure that the informed consent of the subjects was obtained "Each of the researchers had a non-delegable duty. The duty rested on the researchers," White-Lief said.
The 272-page report cites the task force's three main findings:
. The research conducted on human subjects at or form state schools between 1943 and 1973 that involved the introduction of radioactive substances into their bodies was conducted in violation of the fundamental human rights of the subjects involved.
. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which was at the time charged with the responsibility of caring for the individuals in its custody, failed to provide basic protection to the individuals who were subjected to the research.
.Laws designed to protect persons with mental retardation from being subjected to experimentation are inadequate and need to be strengthened.
Task force members urged the Department of Mental Retardation to support the passage of current legislation filed by Gov. William F. Weld '66. The proposed law requires the informed consent of human subjects as a condition for performing research in any state facility.
U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass). issued a statement yesterday praising the task force and the report.
"From my viewpoint, the most important recommendations of the report are compensation for damages and mechanisms to prevent a recurrence," said Markey, adding that he has already introduced legislation to set federal standards for compensation.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56 (D-Mass) echoed Markey's statement in a letter accompanying the report.
"Together we will uncover the full extent of the problem and ensure this will not occur again," Kennedy said.