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Fernald School Subjects Identified

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@ByName:By Jeremy Hylton


@Body:An ongoing investigation of human radiation experiments done by MIT and Harvard University researchers has identified the subjects of at least two 1950s nutritional studies involving radioactive tracers.

According to Professor J. David Litster PhD<\q>’65, vice president and dean for research at MIT, the subjects were mentally retarded patients from the Walter E. Fernald State School.

Rev. Doe West, coordinator of the Massachusetts Task Force to Review Human Subject Research and chaplain at the Fernald School, headed the investigation. She used the Fernald School’s records about its mentally retarded patients, information from Harvard University, and MIT’s records, which included the height and weights of the test subjects, to determine the dosages each subject received.

“It’s a detective story because we have bits of information, and they have bits of information, and the Rev. West has been playing detective. I’m amazed she has put together all the pieces so quickly,” Litster said.

In addition to working with the state task force investigation, Litster and Francis X. Masse, MIT’s radiation protection officer, testified at a hearing conducted by Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D–Mass.) at the Fernald School on Jan. 13.

In the 1950s, the late Professor of Nutrition Robert S. Harris studied how the body absorbs calcium and iron by feeding 125 patients of the Fernald School milk and cereal laced with radioactive tracers.

The tests were first made public when Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary declassified thousands of government documents about radiation and radiation testing late last year.

After reading a story in the Dec. 26 Boston Globe about the tests at the Fernald School, President Charles M. Vest asked Litster to head an investigation of the Institute’s records.

Litster has not concluded his review of all the radiation tests recently discovered, but his calculations for Harris’ nutrition tests indicate that the dosages involved were very small.

Litster said that the purpose of the investigation was to ascertain the amount of risk people were exposed to, and to determine the harm caused by the exposure.

“It is important to recognize that the purpose of these studies was to improve understanding of nutritional processes in order to promote the health of young people, and that the radiation exposure appears to have been well within today’s limits,” Vest said.

@BodySub:Kennedy hearing

@Body:Kennedy chaired a meeting of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources at the Fernald School. The hearing focused primarily on the issue of informed consent.

“We want to know what records exist, how great the dangers were, how much consent, if any, was obtained from the research, and how much harm was done,” Kennedy said in his opening statement.

“Once we have this information, we can enact legislation to help the victims and prevent any repetitions of these abominable practices,” Kennedy continued.

In the 1970s, Kennedy introduced legislation that effectively ended experimentation without the informed consent of the subjects, according to a spokesman in Kennedy’s office.

According to Masse, to the best of his knowledge, no formal review policies existed at MIT in the late 1940s and 50s when the studies were done.

Litster testified that Felix Bronner PhD<\q>’52, who based his thesis on the calcium studies, found that the Fernald School acted as a custodian for the patients and permitted them to participate.

“It was apparently customary for the physician, who allowed access to the patients, to assume responsibility for securing appropriate informed consent,” Litster testified.

According to a report published in The Boston Globe, parents of the youths at the Fernald school were probably not told that the nutritional experiments their children would be participating in involved radioactive tracers.

Current policy at MIT requires radiation experiments to be approved by the Committee of the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects and the Committee of Radiation Exposure to Human Subjects.

Litster said he thought Kennedy had conducted a fair hearing, considering the possibility for “things going off track.”

“He was very tough with the questions he asked, but they were fair and appropriate questions,” Litster said.