Proof of plan for child radiation tests

January 27, 1995

A Dundee researcher has uncovered an American professor's proposals in the 1950s for radiation experiments on "idiots and feeble-minded children".

Sue Rabbitt Roff of Dundee's centre for medical education accidentally discovered proposed studies into the effects of irradiation on the skin and on immune mechanisms while carrying out archival research for her book, Hotspots: The Legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to be published by Cassells in August on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings.

Ms Roff has sent the information to United States president Bill Clinton's advisory committee on human radiation experiments, which is due to report in May, and said she expected it to be able to look more closely at whether the experiments on subjects who were likely to have only limited power of consent were actually carried out.

In May 1958, Donald M. Pillsbury, professor of dermatology in the University of Pennsylvania, wrote to Thomas Francis, a prominent epidemiologist at the University of Michigan and president of the armed forces epidemiological board, warning that not enough was known about the effects of ionising radiation on skin.

"It would be our plan to give careful calibrated ionising radiation in varying amounts to small areas of skin in human subjects. The size of the areas would be such that surgical excision could easily be accomplished if any untoward effects were noted."

Professor Pillsbury said the principal subjects would be "idiots and feeble-minded children permanently committed to a home in New Jersey. An excellent rapport with the institution has been established and a number of experimental studies have been carried out there without incident and with the full co-operation from the authorities in charge of the institutions."

The advantage was that such subjects could be observed indefinitely, Professor Pillsbury said; prisoners could also be used, although they were not likely to be observed for more than two years.

Later that year, he told the board that he believed experiments could be carried out safely at "an institution for mental defectives . . . There would be no concern about the possible genetic effects; these individuals will never reproduce."

Ms Roff said her own work was a study of the growing understanding of the hazards of ionising radiation and radionuclides over the past 50 years."It is important to put these activities into the historical and ethical contexts of their period, but we must also consider the possibility that our public officials are not always fully sensitive to changing ethical standards," she said.

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