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Part II

Chapter 9


The Oregon and Washington Experiments

Other Radiation Experiments

History of Prison Research Regulation

Ethical Considerations

Chapter 9: Other Radiation Experiments

There is no comprehensive list of radiation experiments with prisoners as subjects, but in the course of the Advisory Committee's historical research a handful of such experiments other than those in Oregon and Washington has been identified. In many cases there is only fragmentary information available, which the Committee has not always been able to verify. To provide a sense of what else might have been going on at the time (which may or may not have been representative), consider the following:

  • A former prison administrator in Utah has confirmed that experiments were conducted on prisoner subjects in the late 1950s or early 1960s in which blood appears to have been removed, irradiated, and returned to the body. Prisoners at the time who were interviewed by the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City newspaper, said they believed that about ten prisoner-volunteers were studied in this way. One subject said, "They told us nothing about the tests. They just said it wouldn't bother us."[50] In a 1959 confidential report to the president of the University of Utah, Lowell A. Woodbury, the radiological safety officer said: "One group of medical experimenters with authorization for human experimentation was administering isotopes to volunteers at the state prison. This was in direct violation of the terms of their license and while not an extremely serious violation was apt to result in a citation [from the Atomic Energy Commission]."[51]

  • Experiments were conducted at the Medical College of Virginia in the early 1950s under the sponsorship of the Army and possibly the Public Health Service using radioactive tracers. The goal was to study the life cycle of red blood cells. As discussed in more detail in chapter 13, Dr. Everett I. Evans, in a letter to the superintendent of the state penitentiary, quoted from a letter from Colonel John R. Wood of the Army surgeon general's office, which provided that no information related to research being conducted for the Army surgeon general be released without review by the Public Information Office of the Defense Department. Dr. Evans said the reason for this was that "the problem of the use of prisoner volunteers is not yet clarified."[52]

  • During the 1960s "prison volunteers" in the Colorado State Penitentiary were used as subjects in an experiment designed to determine the survival time and characteristics of red blood cells during periods of rapid red cell formation and during periods of severe iron deficiency. Red cells transfused into normal recipients were tagged with either radioactive iron or radioactive phosphorus.[53] In a 1976 report on the study, which used five subjects, the investigators wrote:

    The rights of the prisoners were respected in conformance with the Helsinki Declaration of the World Health Organization and the Nuremberg Code. Approval was obtained from the Governor, Attorney General, and Director of Institutions of the State of Colorado, the warden and psychiatrist of the Colorado State Penitentiary, and the nearest of kin of each volunteer.[54]

    It is not clear from this publication or other documents available to the Committee precisely what use was made of the principles stated in the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki in obtaining the consent of the prisoner-subjects in this experiment. However, if the investigators did accept Nuremberg and Helsinki as standards for consent in the 1960s it adds weight to other evidence (for example, the citation of Nuremberg by the Human Rights Review Committee of the Department of Institutions in the Washington testicular irradiation experiment) that these standards were considered relevant to research on prisoners in the 1960s.

  • Other federally sponsored experiments on prisoner volunteers appear to have been conducted in Pennsylvania (Holmesburg State Prison, the effects of radiation on human skin), Oklahoma (Oklahoma State Penitentiary, routine metabolic studies of experimental drugs using tracer amounts of radionuclides), Illinois (Stateville Prison, measurements of radium burden received from drinking water), and California (San Quentin, tracking movement of iron from plasma to red blood cells using a radioactive marker).[55]

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