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Cheaper Than Lab Rats: Can Prisoners Glow in the Dark?

We get outraged and indignant when we read or hear of atrocities committed by Nazi doctors in the name of medical science. [1]  Yet, if what the Nazis did is what triggers our sense of outrage, then we need not travel so far back in time or cast our gaze across the ocean to become shocked. There are thousands of homegrown examples in this century of the most barbaric medical experiments imaginable that have been conducted on Americans by doctors and researchers. [2]  Some of these experiments are almost too gruesome to be believed. They so horrifically depict the capacity of people in positions of trust and power to engage in inhumane behavior, that they push the needle of believability to the edge of the Twilight Zone .

The Tuskagee Syphilis Study is the most well known of these experiments. [3]  From 1932 to 1972, doctors in Tuskagee, Alabama deliberately misled almost 400 syphilis infected men into thinking they were being provided with free medical care for their disease. Unbeknownst to them, they were getting all the medical care they were paying for. Instead of providing care, the doctors were tracking the progress of the untreated syphilis bacteria eating away at the body and mind of the unsuspecting "subjects" of their study. At the same time they were being poked, prodded, and studied by doctors, many of these men died from a lack of medical care. Penicillin was also withheld from these men, even though its use as a treatment for syphilis began in 1947. The Tuskegee study was forced to be terminated in 1972 because of the nationwide outrage that was expressed when its existence was publicly exposed.

It is known that the heyday of medical experiments such as the Tuskagee Syphilis Study was from the early part of the 1900's to the mid-1970's. These dangerous medical experiments were conducted on human guinea pigs by doctors associated with respected clinics and universities. Some of these experiments lasted for years and their legal and personal repercussions are continuing in various forms to the present time. However, for the most part, the story of these experiments remains hidden from the consciousness of American society.

Some of the most inhumane of these medical experiments, and which overwhelm the Tuskegee scandal in significance and scope, were revealed in the Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments was released to the public on October 3, 1995. [4]  This multivolume report of almost 3,000 pages documents thousands of radiation experiments performed on thousands of Americans from 1944 to 1974. These biomedical experiments were funded by the Atomic Energy Commission, and were intended to determine the various effects of radiation on the human body. The experiments were conducted in prisons, hospitals, and university facilities nationwide, with the full support of the U. S. government. [5] 

Furthermore, it is possible that none of the "victims" of these Dr. Kaligori type experiments was told the true nature of the tests, or the potential dangers to their health. Which means they didn't provide the "informed consent" legally required before they could be allowed to participate. [6]  Many hundreds of prisoners were used in these experiments, and they were supplemented by people on the outside who were "uneducated, had low intelligence, [and] did not know how to follow instructions..." [7]  In other words, doctors recruited those they considered to be the throwaway people of American society for their experiments. All of whom were paid a pittance or nothing at all for their participation. Not surprisingly, many of these human guinea pigs were deliberately denied medical care for the physical pain and ailments caused by the radiation and other substances they were exposed to. [8] 

In Nazi Germany the people used for medical experiments were described as "life unworthy of life." [9]  This same attitude toward the Americans involved in medical experiments was exemplified by the fact that people radiated at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center -- 25% of whom died from radiation poisoning -- were deliberately denied medical care for the vomiting and nausea that resulted from their "treatments." In When medicine went wrong: how Americans were used illegally as guinea pigs , it is noted that "This was apparently so abhorrent to the hospital staff, used to caring for patients, that the researchers had to concoct a special form to ensure that the doctors, nurses, and other personnel would not perform their habitually compassionate job of caring for the sick. The form instructed hospital staff to ignore their normal feelings of humanity ..." [10 ]  Destroying the bodies of their victims wasn't enough for the doctors at the University of Cincinnati, they also toyed with their minds by housing them in the hospital's psychiatry unit instead of a medical ward. [11 ]  Needless to say, the doctors involved didn't obtain legally recognizable "informed consent" from any of the people involved in these experiments.

However, the most hidden aspect of these biomedical experiments performed on Americans in the name of science, are the details involving the use of prisoners. While prisoners have been used as the most convenient and disposable of all scientific "test subjects" for the past two hundred years, this story has only been exposed in a few books, magazine and newspaper articles. [12 ]  Two of the most uncompromising sources of information about these experiments are: Acres of Skin (1998) by Allen M. Hornblum and Kind and Usual Punishment: the Prison Business (1973) by Jessica Mitford.

One of these "hidden" stories about the use of prisoners in medical experiments first came to public attention in 1976. [13 ]  It was revealed then that between the late 1950's and the mid-1970's, prisoners at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem and the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla were used as human guinea pigs in medical experiments involving injections of hormones and exposure to high doses of radiation. Among other things, "The tests were designed to help determine how much radiation U. S. astronauts could bear during space flights." [14 ] 

In 1976, twenty of the men who had participated in the Oregon experiments sued the State of Oregon and Dr. Carl Heller, who had supervised them, for $4.3 million. Dr. Heller was a member of the medical elite and founded the Heller Institute in Seattle that became the world renowned Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. These suits were settled out of court in 1979 for the total payment of $6,375 to these men. [15 ]  The compensation these men received for their pain and suffering pales next to the $1.1 million that the Atomic Energy Commission paid for conducting the experiments that mutilated them. [16 ] 

However, the information that was learned about the experiments because of the 1976 lawsuits was only the tip of the iceberg. We are still learning the truth about the prisoners involved and what was done to them. For example, it has since been revealed that at least 235 prisoners were used in these experiments, with 131 of them receiving varying doses of radiation. [17 ]  The reason more of the truth about these experiments is being revealed after more than twenty years of bureaucratic resistance, is the national publicity generated by the 18 months of investigative work that led up to the issuance of Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments .[18 ]

This report owes its existence to the national furor created after the Albuquerque Tribune published a series of articles in November, 1993 revealing the names of Americans secretly injected with plutonium as part of top-secret government experiments. [19 ]  Plutonium is a key ingredient in the manufacture of atom bombs. The articles were the result of six years of investigative work by Albuquerque Tribune reporter Ms. Eileen Welsome, and she was rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting on April 12, 1994. [20 ] 

The public revelations that thousands of Americans were used as guinea pigs for studying the effects of radiation and chemical and biological agents on human beings, encouraged some of the Pacific Northwest prison inmates involved to step forward after decades of silence and shatter the bureaucratic veil of secrecy surrounding their participation in these experiments. [21 ]  Some of these men's stories have been told in investigative articles written by Karen Dorn Steele for The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA) and Gary Lee for the Washington Post .

These stories humanize the experience of men who had their identity as human "test subjects" obscured by the use of code numbers. The brief story of three of these men follows. Two of them were involved in experiments conducted during the 1960's at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP), and the other at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP). Their tales read like a Stephen King horror story -- except they are real.

Paul Tyrrell was a 21 year old prisoner at OSP when he began his journey as a human "lab rat" for Dr. Heller. For the princely sum of $5 a month, Mr. Tyrrell's testicles were bombarded with 1,200 rads of radiation. This is the equivalent radiation dosage of 1,200 diagnostic chest x-rays, and if it hadn't been specifically directed at his testicles, it would have been enough to kill him. He would lie in a coffin like box while his testicles were bombarded with radiation to see how his body would react and how it affected his sperm count. Perhaps not surprisingly, the immediate physical effects he experienced was a burning sensation and sunburn like redness in his genital area. [22 ]  Mr. Tyrrell also participated in experiments intended to determine the effects on the human body of heavy doses of synthetic hormones. Not only did these injections result in a loss of his sex drive and shrunken testicles, but he lost a part of both his breasts to cancerous tumors. Nevertheless, he might have actually been lucky. Some of the men subject to these injections grew breasts. However, this isn't all he endured. For the additional payment of $15, Dr. Heller performed tissue biopsies on Paul Tyrrell that caused his testicles to swell up like a couple of footballs. [23 ] 

Paul Tyrrell was one of the plaintiff's in the 1976 lawsuit against the State of Oregon and Dr. Heller. The $5,000 he received for his pain and suffering when the case was settled, was more than any other plaintiff was paid. Although he is still alive, Paul Tyrrell lives in constant worry over the effects of the experiments conducted on his body when he was young, virile, and gullible enough to risk his health for $5 a month.

Martin Smith was a 23 year old prisoner at the WSP in Walla Walla when he eagerly agreed to be a radiation "lab rat" in 1963. Why was he so eager? The only prisoners given the privilege of reading Playboy magazine were "lab rats," and he was further induced by the payment of $10 a month. Mr. Smith's job was to masturbate into a jar for a year so his sperm count could be tracked. His testicles were then bombarded with a high dose of radiation to see how it affected his sperm count. [24 ]  To this day, he doesn't know how much radiation he was exposed to.

Although he has suffered medical complications from being radiated, Mr. Smith failed three different times after he was released from the WSP to contact Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen of the University of Washington, who conducted the experiments. Perhaps fittingly, Dr. Paulsen's mentor was Dr. Heller, who conducted the experiments at the OSP. Mr. Smith is still alive, but he wants to know the health consequences to himself and his son of the radiation he was exposed to when he was young, in prison, and the chance to be paid $10 a month to read Playboy and masturbate into a jar seemed like an opportunity too good to pass up.

Dr. Paulsen has spent the last twenty-eight years stonewalling on the details of the human radiation experiments that he was paid $505,000 by the Atomic Energy Commission to conduct at the WSP. [25 ]  However, because of a lawsuit filed in 1996 by the Philadelphia, PA law firm of Berger & Montague on behalf of Robert E. White, the truth is beginning to seep out. [26 ]  Mr. White was a victim of the radiation experiments while a prisoner in the 1960's at the WSP. He now lives in Seattle. The discovery process available to Mr. White because of his lawsuit has resulted in the unearthing of long buried information. For example, in June of 1997, twenty-six years after the Washington experiments were stopped in 1971, the names of the 63 men involved were finally disclosed to the public. Remarkably, Dr. Paulsen, who is still alive, hid the names of these men for nearly thirty years on the grounds of protecting their privacy. [27 ]  Mr. White's lawsuit is seeking "unspecified damages and a medical monitoring fund to track the prisoners' health problems." [28 ]  Even though the lawsuit is a day late and a dollar short for the 22 prisoner participants who have died, the 41 survivors will benefit from winning this lawsuit.

Harold Bibeau was a 23 year-old prisoner at the OSP when he "volunteered" for Dr. Heller's radiation experiments in 1968. As a "lab rat," he earned $5 a month that he had no other way of making in prison. Just like Paul Tyrrell, Mr. Bibeau was told to lie down in a box resembling a coffin while lowering his testicles into water. [29 ]  When he did this, his testicles were irradiated with 18-1/2 rads -- the equivalent of 20 diagnostic x-rays. [30 ]  Harold Bibeau says that after his testicles were irradiated by Dr. Heller's crude x-ray machine, "It was warm down there, like I have been laying in the sun for too long." [31 ]  This isn't surprising, because a man's "[t]esticles are especially sensitive to radiation; even slight chromosomal damage can lead to infertility, testicular cancer, and birth defects." [32 ]  The high probability of physical damage is one reason that all prisoners subject to radiation tests were paid extra money to submit to a vasectomy prior to their release from prison. [33 ]  The doctors and government agencies involved didn't want to be vulnerable to a civil suit if one of the prisoners had a child with birth defects.

After the experiment, Harold Bibeau provided urine and semen samples, and he underwent periodic biopsies. However, Mr. Bibeau was never told of the potential danger of developing testicular cancer or tumors in exchange for his $5 a month payment. So just like all the other prisoner participants, he never provided "informed consent" to participate as a test "subject." This was established by depositions related to the 1976 lawsuit by Oregon prisoners, when Dr. Heller "admitted he avoided using the word 'cancer' with the inmates" in order to avoid frightening them. [34 ]  Dr. Heller was well aware that it is easier to recruit so-called "volunteers" for dangerous experiments when they are misled about the potential dangers involved.

While Harold Bibeau was a naive 23 year old when he was lured into exposing his genitals to a high dosage of radiation, he is now fighting for justice. Although Dr. Heller died in 1982, Mr. Bibeau, who now lives near Portland, Oregon, filed a lawsuit in October 1998, on behalf of himself and other "similarly situated persons" against the surviving entities responsible for the radiation experiments he participated in. The lawsuit was filed in the Multnomah County Superior Court (Portland, Oregon), and the defendants include the Oregon Department of Corrections and the Oregon Health Sciences University. [35 ]  The lawsuit alleges that the defendants have failed to comply with the "Medical Monitoring Statute" since it was enacted into law by the 1987 Oregon legislature. [36 ]  This law mandates annual medical screening for each subject of the Heller Experiments, and treatment of any "condition directly related to such experiments," at the expense of the Department of Corrections and without expense to the subject." [37 ]  Needless to say, the defendants are seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed. Even after three decades, they are continuing to evade their responsibility to provide health care to the men whose lives they recklessly endangered.

The non-monetary damages portion of Mr. Bibeau's lawsuit has been approved for class-action status. The suit is being handled by Berger & Montague, the same law firm pursuing the lawsuit for victims of experiments conducted at the Washington State. How these suits will turn out is unknown at this time. However, they are helping to uncover the truth of what was, and because of the continuing cover-ups and evasion of responsibility by the government agencies and private institutions involved, is still being done to the inmates physically and psychologically tortured by these experiments.

Fortunately, the story of prisoner experimentation on Oregon and Washington prisoners has three heroines.

Instead of the typical governmental response of endless denials and cover-ups, Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary unexpectedly reacted to the revelations made in the Albuquerque Tribune's 1993 series of articles with the politically incorrect demand for public hearings and full disclosure of the secret radiation experiments performed on Americans during the height of the Cold War. [38 ]  Her resistance to sweeping the sordid affair under the rug directly led to the presidential appointment of a diverse fourteen member panel whose 18 month investigation produced the documentary evidence contained in the nearly 3,000 page, Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments .

The experiments on Oregon State prisoners were stopped in late 1973 because of the national outrage generated by The Torture Cure: In Some American Prisons, It is Already 1984 , an August, 1973 Harper's Magazine article written by Jessica Mitford that exposed the brutal treatment of prisoners. [39 ]  Ms. Mitford's article was excerpted from her then forthcoming book Kind and Usual Punishment: the Prison Business , which is still one of the best books available on prisoner medical experiments.

The experiments on Washington State prisoners were stopped in 1971 because of the legal and ethical concerns repeatedly expressed by Washington prison psychologist Ms. Audrey Holliday. She courageously fought alone against nationally known nuclear scientists, the Atomic Energy Commission, the University of Washington, and the bureaucratic hierarchy of the Washington Department of Corrections and other state agencies in a valiant and successful effort to stop radiation experiments on state prisoners in Washington. [40 ]  Although she proved the power of one determined person with convictions against the might and inertia of the federal and state governments, Ms. Holliday paid the price of standing firm in trying to protect inmates she thought were being shamelessly exploited. She was hounded into quitting her job and moved to California in the early 1970's.

The motive force behind Ms. Holliday's opposition was her professional opinion that prisoner experimentation violated the Nuremberg Code's requirement that the involvement of human volunteers in medical experiments must be based on their knowing and voluntary consent. [41 ]  She was convinced that prisoners cannot provide "informed consent" to be used as "lab rats" in a legal or ethical sense, because of the physical, psychological, and financial conditions under which they live. [42 ]  They all live under the cloud of what is known as the prisoner's dilemma -- how can someone voluntarily agree to something when they aren't in a position to freely refuse to do so?

The Nuremberg Code was crafted by American jurists after the revelations of bizarre and inhumane medical experiments performed on prisoners by the Nazis during W.W.II. Its ten articles were intended to provide protection for people recruited for medical experiments. The first sentence of its first article states: "The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential." [43 ]  However, Dr. Heller and Dr. Paulsen were among the legion of American doctors who chose to ignore the letter and spirit of the Nuremberg Code. Instead they substituted their professional and financial self-interest for its humane mandates, and followed in the footsteps of Nazi doctors who conducted radiation, hormone, and sterilization experiments on prisoners incapable of giving voluntary and "informed consent." [44 ]  Needless to say, American doctors also mimicked the Nazi doctors by disregarding their Hippocratic Oath to do no deliberate harm to people in their care.

The title of this article is rooted in the actions of the Nazi brethren of American doctors. Doctor Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death at Auschwitz and his fellow Nazi doctors were inspired by pre-war experiments conducted by American doctors on prisoners. [45 ]  The Nazis used prisoners for their diabolical medical experiments for the same reason as their American counterparts -- they were "the cheapest experimental animals, cheaper than rats." [46 ] 

End of Part One

Note: Part Two of Cheaper Than Rats will explore some of the other biomedical, scientific, and psychological experiments that have been conducted on prisoners in the United States from the establishment of the first prison in 1790, to the present time.

Footnotes for: Cheaper Than Rats - Part 1 - Can Prisoners Glow in the Dark?
1Three books readily available that describe the who, what, where, when, and why of Nazi medical experiments, are: "The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide," Robert Jay Lifton, Basic Books, NY, 1986, p. 301; "Nazi Germany: A New History," Klaus P. Fischer, Continuum Publishing Co., NY, 1997, and "The Nazi doctors and the Nuremberg Code : human rights in human experimentation," Annas, George J., Michael A. Grodin, ed., Oxford University Press, NY, 1992.

2. For an overview of this research, see e.g., "When medicine went wrong: how Americans were used illegally as guinea pigs," Judith Braffman-Miller, USA Today (Magazine), March, 1995, vol. 123, no. 2598, p. 84(3)

3. See e.g. "The Tuskegee Syphilis Study : The Real Story and Beyond," Fred D. Gray, Black Belt Press, 1998. (Gray was an attorney for one of the study survivors)

4. "Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments," October, 1995, U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC, stock number 061-000-00-848-9. The three supplemental volumes containing supporting documents are 061-000-00850-1, 061-000-00850-9, and 061-000-00852-7. The four volumes making up the report total almost 3,000 pages.

5. There were even hundreds of instances when the general public was exposed to "intentional releases of radioactive material into the environment." See: "Interim Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments," October 21, 1994, U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC, stock number 061-000-00819-5, p. 17-19.

6. "Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments," p. 3.

7. "When medicine went wrong: how Americans were used illegally as guinea pigs," p. 84(3)

8. ibid., p. 84(3)

9. See e.g., "Life Unworthy of Life: Racial Phobia and Mass Murder in Hitler's Germany," James M. Glass, BasicBooks, NY, 1997

10. "When medicine went wrong: how Americans were used illegally as guinea pigs," p. 84(3).

11. ibid., p. 84(3).

12. The beginning of the use of prisoners as radiation guinea pigs in the 1940's is related in, "The only feasible means: the Pentagon's ambivalent relationship with the Nuremberg Code," Jonathan D. Moreno, The Hastings Center Report, Sept.-Oct., 1996, vol. 26, no. 5, p. 11(9)

13. "Experiments a life sentence," Karen Dorn Steele, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, WA, June 19, 1994, p. 1, A8-A9, at A9.

14. "The Lifelong Harm to Radiation's Human Guinea Pigs," Gary Lee, Washington Post, National Weekly Edition, November 28, 1994, p. 33.

15. "Experiments a life sentence," p. A9.

16. "Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison," Allen M. Hornblum, Routledge, N. Y., 1998.

17. "Experiments a life sentence," p. A1, A8-A9.

18. "The Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments: reflections on a presidential commission," Ruth Faden, The Hastings Center Report, Sept.-Oct., 1996, vol. 26, no. 5, p. 5(6)

19. "Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments," p. 2.

20. "When medicine went wrong: how Americans were used illegally as guinea pigs," p. 84(3).

21. "President limits secret experiments on humans," Andrew A. Skolnick, JAMA, May 28, 1997, vol. 277, no. 20, p. 1583.,

22. "Experiments a life sentence," p. A8-9.

23. ibid., p. A9.

24. ibid., p. A8.

25. "Names given in Cold War tests," Karen Dorn Steele, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, WA, June 8, 1997, p. B1-2.

26. ibid., p. B1.

27. ibid., p. B2.

28. ibid., p. B1.

29. "The Lifelong Harm to Radiation's Human Guinea Pigs," p. 33.

30. ibid., p. 33.

31. ibid., p. 33.

32. ibid., p. 33.

33. "Experiments a life sentence," p. A8-A9.

34. ibid., p. A8.

35. Harold Bibeau, et al. v. Department of Corrections, Oregon Health Sciences University, et al., Multnomah County Superior Court, Portland, OR, Case No. 9712-10262

36. 1987 Oregon Laws, Chapter 486, ("Medical Monitoring Statute") 1.

37. Harold Bibeau, et al. v. Department of Corrections, Oregon Health Sciences University, et al., Multnomah County Superior Court, Portland, OR, Case No. 9712-10262, "Notice of Class Action," October 16, 1998.

38. "Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments," pp. 2-3.

39. "Psychologist pays price to stop experiments," Karen Dorn Steele, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, WA, June 19, 1994, p. A8.

40. ibid., p. A8.

41. The ten provisions of The Nuremberg Code are listed on pages xi-xii of "Acres of Skin."

42. "Psychologist pays price to stop experiments," p. A8.

43. "Acres of Skin," p. xi.

44. See e.g., "Nazi Germany: A New History," pp. 489-491, "The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide," and "Nazi Medical Experiment Report: evidence from the Nuremberg medical trial," Beth Haverkamp and Wynell Schamel, Social Education, Oct., 1995, v. 59, n. 6, p. 367(7).

45. "Kind and Usual Punishment: the Prison Business", Jessica Mitford, Alfred A. Knopf, N. Y. 1973.

46. "The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide," p. 301

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