Episode 40 - Radioactive Oatmeal

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In 1893, Charles Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, revealed his theory he named ‘eugenics.’ The basis of eugenics was that societies should take Mendel’s research on patterns of inheritance and apply those to genetic traits in humans. Basically, encourage people that are healthy, have above-average intelligence, plus other positive traits to get together and have more children. Galton gathered biological information from prominent families in England using obituaries and other resources to create a pedigree that included information like intelligence and other abilities. Using these pedigrees, Galton concluded that desirable traits were inherited with about a 20% efficiency rate.

Eugenics began to become popular in the United States in the early 1900’s when a biologist named Charles Davenport used Mendelian genetics to produce the optimal offspring in animals. Davenport then turned his attention to using Mendel’s principles on human traits. In 1903, several scientists, reformers, and other professionals created the American Breeder’s Association and included a eugenics committee that was run by Charles Davenport. Members included Alexander Graham Bell and Stanford President David Starr Jordan. The American Breeder’s Association was formed to “investigate and report on hereditary in the human race and emphasize the value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood.”

In 1910, Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office or ERO at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York. ERO’s goal was “to improve the natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family.” However, instead of concentrating on having humans with optimal traits make babies, the ERO focused on keeping individuals they deemed “unfit” from having children. The ERO believed that they could eradicate mental retardation, psychiatric illness, and physical disabilities from the population if they kept people already living with those conditions from procreating.

The ERO began to create their own pedigrees in America over the next 29 years by conducting interviews and prison and hospital records. The people creating these pedigrees looked to see if people had signs of epilepsy, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, criminality, or feeblemindedness, which was a catchall term they used to label someone with any degree of mental retardation or learning disability. They never took in account what the environmental factors the people were living with such as poor housing or low levels of education. Also, because several of these unattractive traits were so vague and subjective to the researchers own prejudices, any person could be categorized as “unfit” in order to fit a Mendelian mold.

When the results of these pedigrees came out, they showed that prisons and psychiatric hospitals often housed people related for each other which made it seem like these undesirable traits were hereditary. This was also around the time that many American cities were feeling overwhelmed by crime, poverty, and the arrival of a large amount of immigrants. Many politicians and medical professionals began to get behind the eugenics movement and wanted to get it into public policy. The ERO proposed that laws be made that would allow for the sterilization of “socially inadequate” individuals. They argued that by preventing the birth of more socially inadequate individuals, society could be saved thousands of dollars in the future. 28 states adopted eugenic sterilization laws.

By 1963, there were 64,000 known cases of eugenic sterilization in the U.S. and it is thought that there were around 80,000 sterilizations conducted between the late 1960’s and 70’s, with a large umber of those being performed on African American, Hispanic, and Native women. There are some reports that suggest that over 25% of Native women that were childbearing age were sterilized in the 70’s.

California conducted the most eugenic sterilizations than any other state by performing 20,000 of the 64,000 sterilizations that occurred in the first half of the 20th century. A study of the impact of California’s sterilization laws were used by Nazi Germany to form their own sterilization laws and Hitler cited the book “Sterilization for Human Betterment: A Summary of Results of 6,000 Operations in California, 1909-1929” to further his own eugenic agenda.

In order to prove that they were fit enough to reproduce, Americans would submit their families into Fitter Families and Better Babies contests held at state fairs. During the Better Babies contests, babies that were white could be entered and judged on their health history, physical, and mental development. Fitter Families competitions judged families on the size of family, overall attractiveness, and health of the family and were originally sponsored by the Red Cross.

In 1848, Dr. Samuel Gridley received $2,500 from the Massachusetts State Legislature to create the Experimental School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children in Boston. Dr. Gridley believed that children that had been labeled idiots could be taught to lead productive adult lives. The school’s name was changed to the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-minded in 1883 and in 1887, the school was moved to the suburb of Waltham so that the students could learn farming and shop skills. The school’s third superintended was Walter E. Fernald, who was an advocate for eugenics and changed the school’s mission from trying to get these children to a place of independent living instead to believing that these children would need to be cared for permanently so that they couldn’t be a burden to society by committing crimes and having more feeble minded children. The school was renamed again to the Fernald State School in 1925, a year after Walter Fernald’s death.

When Alfred Binet created the IQ test in 1904, many schools used the test to gauge the intelligence of their students. Many of the children that tested in the 50-70 range would be sent Fernald or one of the over 100 schools across the country just like it. However, not all of the students at Fernald were mentally challenged. Some were sent there from shelters or because their parents had abandoned them. It’s estimated that about 50% of the children that resided at Fernald would have been able to function well in society without the school’s intervention.

In 1949, 8-year-old Fred Boyce’s foster mother died. His biological mother had abandoned him at 8 months old and he had lived in 7 different foster homes in that 8 year span. He had never been able to attend school because he was always moving. Boyce was given an IQ test, after which he was labeled a “moron” even though he had tested within the normal range which was actually impressive for not having any education. Boyce was sent to Fernald and later said “They didn’t have to look for homes for you, so they could just dump you off in these human warehouses and just let you rot, you know. That’s what they did. They let us rot.”

When Boyce arrived, 36 children were stuffed into each room. Boyce never actually started school, instead he was just given a ‘Dick and Jane’ book that he read over and over again. Instead, the school had the children do manual labor to keep the school running. The children raised vegetables in the garden, sewed soles onto shoes, made brooms that they would use to sweep the floor. Some students were even made to cut up the brains of severely mentally disabled people that had died at the school so that scientists could study them.

The staff at the school were extremely brutal to the children; they would take away their meals and abuse them both physically and sexually. They would have days called “Red Cherry Day” where the kids would sit in a circle and be called up alphabetically to be spanked with a branch until their butt turned red like a cherry. Many children ran away, but they were always caught and sent to Ward 22 which was the detention center. The runaway was then stripped naked and thrown into a solitary confinement prison cell with a mattress on the floor.

In 1949, 90 students at Fernauld’s were asked to join the new “Science Club.” The students were told that they would be given special privileges if the joined. A letter was sent out to the student’s parents asking for their permission to enroll their children into the Science Club. If the children did not have any parents, the children were asked to fill out the permission slips themselves. Many could not read or write, but they signed as best as they could after believing they were told the gist of what the Science Club entailed. Boyce joined along with 74 other students. Boyce hoped that the scientists running the Science Club would see the abuse him and the other children were enduring and put an end to it. The children that took part in the Science Club were treated specially. They were given a Christmas party, taken to Red Sox games, mickey mouse watches, and got extra special desserts.

The boys were also fed large amounts of Quaker Oats cereal. In the 40’s, Quaker Oats was competing with Cream of Wheat for the hot breakfast cereal market along with competing with the sugary dry cereal companies. Cereals were also under heavy scrutiny at that time for their nutritional value. A study had just come out that showed that oats contained high levels of phytate, which is an acid that inhibits the absorption of iron and calcium in the body. So when MIT expressed interest in studying how the human body absorbs essential minerals and vitamins, Quaker Oats was more than happy to foot the bill, especially if the results gave them an advantage over Cream of Wheat.

MIT’s plan was to recruit children from Fernald and feed them Quaker Oats that were covered in radioactive tracers. The Fernald students were ideal test subjects since it was easy to get them to participate, every aspect of their lives made them easy to control, and they had no idea what was going on. After having the children eat the radioactive oats, the scientists gathered stool and blood samples that they would use to look for radiation levels. The results showed that the iron absorption rate of Quaker Oats was the same as Cream of Wheat.

MIT wasn’t done though and they then had the children eat Quaker Oats with milk that had radioactive tracers in it, so they could determine if the phytate chemicals in the oats interfered with calcium uptake. Again, the study found that oatmeal allowed for a sufficient level of calcium uptake when combined with milk.

In the third study, MIT wanted to look at happened to calcium once it entered the bloodstream. Children were injected with syringes that were filled with radioactive calcium. The study found that the calcium went straight to the bones. This study became an important cornerstone for later studies in osteoporosis.

After that study, MIT left Fernald and the science club shut down. MIT never bothered to follow up with the children, but they made sure that Quaker Oats was well aware of the results and Quaker Oats started using “high in iron” claims in their advertising.

Fred Boyce was released from Fernald in 1960 when he was 19 and joined a carnival since they didn’t need to see a high school diploma to hire him. In 1993, a journalist at the Boston Globe named Scott Allen found a whole bunch of papers that documented the MIT study at Fernald. Allen published an article he titled “Radiation Used on Retarded” on December 26, 1993 and started a national conversation on the ethics of medical research. It also pushed the federal government into launching an investigation into the MIT study. Senate committee hearings were held on human subjects in radiation research. When asked about the amount of radioactive exposure the children were exposed to, the Vice President of Research at MIT said that it was minute and varied on the subject’s body weight. He went on to say that for the iron experiment “exposures ranged from 170 millirems to 330 millirems with an average of 230. For the calcium experiments, it was much less, like 12 millirems or less.” 300 millirems is equivalent to about 30 consecutive chest x-rays.

The next concern addressed in the hearings was how the study was performed without informed consent. The letter that MIT sent to the parents or had the children sign themselves was determined to be deceptive at best. MIT defended themselves by saying that at the time of the study, the concept of informed consent didn’t exist and that the first federal policy protecting human subjects wasn’t created until four years later in 1953.

After the senate hearings, legal advertisements were place in newspapers asking for people that had belonged to the Fernald Science Club to come forward. Fred Boyce heard about the senate hearings on the radio and was furious that he was just now learning about what had happened to him almost 50 years ago. In 1997, Fred Boyce got 30 other Fernald science club members to join him in filing a class action lawsuit for $60 million on the grounds that their civil rights had been violated. The Massachusetts Task Force investigated the case and came to the conclusion that “the letter in which consent from family members was requested…failed to provide information that was reasonably necessary for an informed decision to be made.” MIT maintained that their researchers acted within ethical standards of the time, but they agreed to pay out a settlement of $1.85 million along with Quaker Oats.

Boyce said that he never got what he really wanted, which was just an apology from somebody. The Fernald center discharged it’s last resident on November 13, 2014. The land was bought by the city of Waltham and it remains vacant.


“Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs” by Karen Norrgard

“Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie” by Tukufu Zuberi

“The Dark Secret of the MIT Science Club for Children” by Zachary Crockett

“A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Radioactive Oatmeal Go Down” by Lorraine Boissoneault

“The Fernald State School and Loss of Childhood Lives Ruined Through Misguided Public Policy” a Neurology Today article

“America’s Deep, Dark Secret” by Bob Simon


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