Cincinnati Human Radiation Experiments, 1960-1972: The Deceased from KentuckyWritten by Reinette F. Jones, 08/04/2023.
In Kentucky, there were newspaper articles about the University of Cincinnati human radiation experiments that took place from 1960-1971. The articles were written during the 1990s when there was a flood of news about the patients, their deaths, the investigations, the hearing, the lawsuit, and the settlement. The newspapers in Ohio printed five times more articles about the radiation experiments than newspapers in any other state. In Kentucky, about half of the 50 or so articles were published in the Louisville Courier-Journal. At the time, it was not known that at least 20% of the deceased patients were born in Kentucky.
[*The teaching hospital, General Hospital, was renamed the University of Cincinnati Hospital in 1982.]
There were 90 cancer patients in all. They had unknowingly been subjected to full-body radiation at the University of Cincinnati Hospital as part of a military funded research project. The majority of the patients were African Americans with low incomes (62%). All of the patients experienced side effects from the high doses of radiation, such as nausea, diarrhea, hemorrhaging, fatigue, and disabilities. Urine and blood samples were sent to an Army researcher at Fort Knox, KY. Patients were not given antinausea medications for three days after the total-body radiation, unless they complained. Each patient's mental state was evaluated after receiving the radiation, this was part of the psychological study portion of the experiments.
Thirteen patients received bone marrow transplants. One of the oldest patients, 80-year-old Margaret Bacon, suffered a stroke during the bone marrow removal procedure, then she received the total-body radiation, and died six days later. Some of the patients died within a few weeks or a few months after receiving the radiation treatment. In at least one case, after John Edgar Webster's death, the family stated to medical officials that they did not want an autopsy performed. Years later, they learned that an autopsy had been performed anyway. Webster was from Kentucky. All but one of the patients had died when there was a federal investigation in 1993.
The one remaining patient was Donna White Christy. She had been 10 years-old when she underwent the full-body radiation for Ewing's sarcoma in 1969. She was a year older than the youngest patient, 9-year-old Terry Lee Holmes from Indiana. Holmes died almost seven years after receiving the radiation treatment in 1969. Most of the deceased patients were residing in Ohio before their deaths. They had moved there earlier in their lives. Many of the African Americans had come from southern states such as Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.
The military funded experiments began in 1960. University of Cincinnati radiologist Dr. Eugene L. Saenger was the lead researcher on what has been termed the Cold War human radiation tests. Each of the cancer patients were individually selected for the experiment project. They ranged in age from 9 to 84. Saenger was under contract with funding from the Department of Defense, Defense Atomic Support Agency ($671,000). He was using the patients to examine how high doses of total body radiation could be used to treat soldiers on a nuclear battlefield. The patients were not told that they were participating in the experiments. They were led to believe that the radiation was intended to treat their cancer. There was no proper informed consent.
The contract between the University of Cincinnati researchers and the Department of Defense was terminated in 1972 after Martha Stephens, a UC faculty member, wrote a report about the experiments, in addition to the pressure brought upon the project by US Senator from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy. Concerns about the unethical and immoral issues surrounding the treatments were thought to have died down and gone away during the 1970s and 1980s. Relatives of the deceased patients were unaware that their family members had been subjected to high doses of radiation as part of an experiment. Then, it all resurfaced with a much greater force in 1993 when newspaper articles were being written about human radiation experiments.
In response, the University of Cincinnati gathered a team of investigators headed by Dr. Raymond Suskin to review and evaluate the radiation experiments that had taken place at UC. The team concluded that no wrongdoing had taken place on their campus. However, this was not enough of an answer to make it all go away. U.S. President Bill Clinton had his Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments to investigate. In 1994, Dr. Saenger was named in the lawsuit brought by the families of the deceased cancer patients. Dr. Saenger claimed that the patients had died from their cancers and that the high doses of radiation had benefitted some of them.
On February 17, 1994, the class action lawsuit was filed against the researchers, the University of Cincinnati, and the City of Cincinnati. The individual researchers at UC who were part of the research project, had attempted to gain immunity from the lawsuit by claiming that they were publicly employed physicians. The claim was dismissed. The names of the 15 researchers are listed on the radiation experiment Wikipedia webpage. The names of 86 patients are listed in Appendix One in the book titled The Treatment, by Martha Stephens. The list of 90 names were published on p.4 of The Cincinnati Enquirer on February 18, 1997. The lawsuit was settled in 1999 for $3.6 million. Donna White Christy was the last holdout to agree to the settlement. Dr. Eugene L. Saenger died in 2007.
The Whole Body Radiation Study Records Collection, 1960-1994, and the Eugene L. Saenger Archival Collection are available at the University of Cincinnati Library.
CINCINNATI HUMAN RADIATION EXPERIEMENTS: DECEASED PATIENTS WHO WERE BORN IN KENTUCKY
Below are the names of Kentucky natives that could be verified. Documents used for verification include birth records, Kentucky Birth Indices, death records, Kentucky death indices, military records, obituaries and articles in newspapers, and library sources listed at the bottom of this entry.
African American (AA)
Franklin D. Bunch - d.11/17/1964, Whitley County
Nina Cline - d.12/28/1968, Logan County
Ellen E. Conyers (AA) - d.12/21/1962, Garrard County
John Levi Davis (AA) - d.09/16/1961, Georgetown, Scott County
James Hamlin - d.01/29/1962, McCreary, Madison County
America Belle Jackson - d.07/15/1966, Flatwood, [usure of county]
Maude Eldridge Jacobs - d.12/02/1964, Linefork, Letcher County
Albert Johnson (AA) - d.10/01/1963, Cynthiana, Harrison County
Marie Johnson - d.03/18/1969, Kentucky
Mary Laws (AA) - d.09/05/1964, Louisville, Jefferson County
Beatrice Plair (AA) - d.05/23/1965, Kentucky
Geneva P. Snow - d.01/21/1965, Kentucky
Brutus Stamper - d.09/07/1960, Lee County
Rose E. Strohm - d.03/14/1971, Campbell County
Reed Taylor, Jr. - d.11/17/1965, Keavy, Laurel County
John Edgar Webster - d.06/03/1962, Mt. Zion, Grant County
Flonnie Belle Wells - d.08/12/1963, Somerset, Pulaski County
John Henry Wells (AA) - d.10/28/1962, Richmond, Madison County
Zannie Westerfield - d.12/29/1961, Bourne, Garrard County
U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
1959-1861 Thomas S. Gates, Jr. (Eisenhower Administration)
1961-1968 Robert S. McNamara (Kennedy Administration)
1968-1969 Clark M. Clifford (Johnson Administration)
1969-1973 Melvin R. Laird (Nixon Administration)
Sources: Christine Wolff, "No wrongdoing found in UC experiments in 1970s," The Cincinnati Enquirer, 12/29/1993, p.3; "Radiation experiment records still missing," The Beacon Journal (Akron), 2/11/1994, p.C3; Steve Bennish & Linda Dono Reeves, "16 New names matched to test cases" & "Cases: new names matched up," The Cincinnati Enquirer, 2/24/1994, front page & p.5; Radiation experiments conducted by the University of Cincinnati Medical School with Department of Defense funding: hearing before the Subcommittee on Administrative Law and Governmental Relations of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, One Hundred Third Congress, second session, April 11, 1994, serial no. 67 [full text at Hathi Trust]; Cincinnati Radiation Experiments (1960-1971), a Wikipedia page; In Re Cincinnati Radiation Litigation, 874 F. Supp. 796 (S.D. Ohio 1995), a Justia US Law webpage; Tim Bonfield, "Radiation settlement tested," 02/18/1997, The Cincinnati Enquirer, pp.A1 & A4; "Notice of Class Action Proposed Settlement," The Courier-Journal, 12/14/1997, p.E7; Tim Bonfield, "Radiation class action argued," The Cincinnati Enquirer, 03/17/1998, p.4; "Revised Notice of Class Action and Proposed Settlement ...," The Cincinnati Enquirer, 04/15/1999, p.D7; "Cincinnati doctor who led controversial human radiation experiments dies at 90," The Columbus Dispatch, 10/4/2007 (online); Contested Medicine: cancer research and the military by Gerald Kutcher; The Treatment: the story of those who died in the Cincinnati radiation tests by Martha Stephens; The Plutonium Files: America's secret medical experiments in the Cold War by Eileen Welsome; "1960-1972: Whole-body radiation experiments," an Alliance for Human Research Protection webpage; Morris L. Hawk , "The "Kingdom of Ends": In Re Cincinnati Radiation Litigation and the Right to Bodily Integrity," Case Western Reserve Law Review, v.45, issue 3, article 8, 1995 (online .pdf).