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Book Review:
Black Americans suffered shocking treatment  

Medical Apartheid: The Dark HIstory of Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (2006)

Harriet Washington, 2006

Harriet Washington's history of medical experimentation on Black Americans, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (2006) is a shocking book, one of the most shocking I've read in recent years regarding racism in the US, which is saying a lot as many books about racism have a high shock value.  A small sample of the dozens of stories in this book include:  


  • In 1945, hospital physicians who had contracts with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) injected Ebb Cade, a Black truck driver seriously injured in a traffic accident, (without his consent) 4.7 micrograms of plutonium - "forty one times the normal lifetime exposure," described by a physician with the Manhattan Project as " the most dangerous chemical known." The scientist who devised the experiment justified this action on the grounds that the subject was elderly and not expected to recover from the accident. Cade was 53 years old at the time. "Before they set Cade's broken legs, AEC doctors ... extracted bone chips and pulled fifteen of his teeth to measure Cade's newly elevated plutonium levels, only then five days later did they set his broken bones."  Cade escaped from the hospital and lived for 8 more years. Washington writes: "He is one of many involuntary radiation experiment subjects," disproportionately African American, according to Washington. She asserts that "Between 1944 and 1994 the AEC supported more than two thousand experimental projects utilizing radiation and human subjects. "Some soldiers were deliberately exposed to the radiation caused by nuclear bombs. " ... unsuspecting hospital patients were injected with plutonium infused with fluorine or otherwise used as subjects in various experiments to calibrate the physical damage associated with various doses of radioactive matter. The moribund pregnant women and their fetuses, the poor, the mentally ill, and children in institutions all risked attracting the fatal attention of doctors of the Manhattan Project."  


  • Jesse Williams, a Black prisoner in the Pennsylvania prison system for four decades spoke to an audience in 2004 at a showing of Acres of Skin, a documentary expose of medical experimentation directed by Dr. Albert Kligman at Philadelphia's Holmesburg Prison. Washington writes: "Williams told the audience of being burned by radiation and sulfuric acid, of immersing his arms in chemicals that had tanned his skin like leather, and of how physicians had rubbed acid into his scrotum until the skin fell away- all for three dollars a session. Researchers had cut his armpit to study the glands and had laced his back with scars in an attempt to induce the disfiguring overgrowths called keloids. Not only patches of poison oak and ivy but also cadaveric tissue had been implanted in his back, and he had inhaled vapors infused with influenza and other viruses. Patch tests of various harsh chemicals had left a checkerboard of rectangular scars ... detergents .. had removed his hair and abraded his scalp." Williams was paid $30-50 for each multisession research study, according to Washington. Physicians were unable to inform Williams of all the chemicals that had been tested on his skin. Washington asserts that prisoners were routinely used in Phase I trials during much of the 20th century because Phase I trials are more risky and more likely to have side effects. Prisoners could be carefully monitored in a way that was difficult with other research subjects. Washington asserts: "Around 1963, Robert Batterman, M.D., ... said "Phase 1 is very big in prisons. The FDA prefers Phase I to be on an inpatient basis - the only place available for large scale toxicity studies is prison. ... That Jesse Williams and thousands of his fellow incarcerated research subjects were African American is no accident. ... so any discussion of US inmates is closely bound up with race, and medical experimentation behind bars is no exception."  Allen Hornblum, author of Acres of Skin, stated: "Most of this research was practiced upon African American men, ... Not only that, but they were used for the worst, most dangerous experiments." Albert Kligman tested 153 experimental drugs on prisoners at Holmesburg between 1960 and 1966 alone." Kligman then began performing chemical warfare studies for the US Army and CIA, Washington asserts.  


  • Under the auspices of the CIA MK-ULTRA program a variety of psychotropic drugs, including LSD and bulbocapnine, were tested on prisoners. Washington asserts: "Some drugs caused temporary paralysis or helplessness, or even placed the subject into a catatonic state, ... Others caused prolonged nausea (or) provoked violent behavior." Bulbocapnine, a drug that in high doses produces catatonia and stupor, was tested exclusively on African American prisoners in Louisiana's prison system, Washington asserts. She acknowledges that prisoners were paid well by prison standards to participate in this research, but questions whether informed consent could have much meaning in these circumstances. 


  •  "In July 2000, the Office of Human Research Protections suspended three hundred studies by the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston .. after the researchers flouted federal regulations. One hundred and ninety five of these studies, mostly HIV and AIDS trials, were conducted in Texas prisons, according to the Austin American Statesman. " 


  • During the 1990s, researchers in New York State explored the relationship between genetics and violence by utilizing the drug fenfluramine with at least 126 boys, mostly 6-10 year old African American and Hispanic children, but no White children. Fenfluramine was used to increase levels of the hormone prolactin, which they hypothesized increased the propensity for aggressive behavior. The goal of the study was to identify a genetic marker for aggression, the so called "mean gene," not to reduce aggression. Further, the boys in the sample were healthy and without problematic behavior. However, fenfluramine had been found in the 1970s to sometimes cause heart valve damage and death among dieters, and these concerns regarding effects of the drug were well known among medical researchers before the drug was used in the Columbia University study discussed by Washington. The drug had never been used with children younger than 12, Washington states. One child, Isaac, began having severe headaches and anxiety attacks two weeks after he was administered the drug, "he couldn't breathe,"  and would wake up screaming. His mother said, "To this day, my son continues to suffer severe consequences of the reckless disregard for him as a human being. To them, he was just another guinea pig." Washington criticizes this study, which was approved by human subjects review committees, on multiple grounds including as part of a pattern of research that stigmatized African Americans; but what is most objectionable ( in my view) is that the study had no purported therapeutic benefit for the boys involved, while it used a drug known at the time to cause heart valve damage or death in 30% of adults who had used it for weight loss. 


  •  In the 1950s and 60's, the CIA funded mind control research in which two researchers, Dr.Harry Bailey (Australian) and Dr. Heath  (American) implanted electrodes into the brains of African American prisoners and hospital patients in Louisiana to deliver charges to the limbic system of the brain, and in doing so, controlling behavior through use of pleasure and pain. Some of the implants were left in the brains of prisoners for up to 3 years, though "Neither he (Bailey) or Heath ever mentioned what they told the patients," Washington asserts. Twenty years later, Bailey justified his use of African Americans as research subjects using vile racist language, e.g., "because  they were everywhere and (were) cheap experimental animals..." Bailey also tested LSD and bulbocapnine on prisoners in Louisiana in order to determine if these drugs could produce aphasia ( loss of speech), anesthesia, memory loss or a sabotaging of willpower, according to a CIA memo. Decades later, the CIA settled out of court with some of the victims of these experiments.


  • In 1960, Fort Detrick's Army Chemical Corps laboratory bred more than four million mosquitos per day and released them in hordes around Carver Village in Florida, a housing development whose population was mostly African American. Washington asserts: "This was an experiment to determine whether these droning syringes on the wing -- disease vectors in medical parlance, could be used as first strike biological weapons to spread yellow fever and other infectious diseases ..." Carver Village in Florida had already been the target of prior biological weapons research created by the CIA. Washington writes: An analysis of the records of MK-ULTRA, of which MK-NAOMI was a part, suggests the Agency released various biological agents, from mosquitos to bacteria, in hundreds of such dispersals, including another Carver Village in Georgia. These experiments resulted in multiple deaths, which was their purpose. The Army then sent out research assistants ( so to speak) to gather up boxes of mosquitoes that had been placed in the backyards of residents, according to people who lived in the Villages.

There are many more such stories in Washington's well written and clearly argued book, including the story of the famous Tuskegee Syphilis Study in which researchers studied the progression of venereal disease in 600 "sick, desperately poor sharecroppers" in Alabama by offering these men medical treatment, which was then deliberately withheld for decades even while men in the study died. Researchers adamantly defended this study for decades in public forums before exposes and widespread protests stopped the study. Science was often used as a justification of unethical (and racist) studies which were conducted by university researchers, the US Army, CIA, and hospitals. Racist values and assumptions controlled science and scientists in these studies rather than the other way around. It was only when social values changed that these research practices stopped. Science and scientists in the US did not "self correct" for 200 years. 


Washington exercises a remarkable level of restraint in telling these horrible stories, though she occasionally argues from opposed perspectives, e.g, researchers are blamed for including too many African Americans, or not enough in studies; criticized for looking for race based cures for diseases, and criticized for ignoring the positive effects of medications on African Americans when these meds did not help persons of other races. Nevertheless, she has written a damning compelling comprehensive indictment of racist practices in American medicine that began during slavery, and continued until the end of the 20th century, and which included research institutions throughout the US. 

-- Dee Wilson

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