Sunday, June 18, 2000

Remembering a nightmare

Families share pain, memories

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Fifty people — including a federal judge — gathered Saturday in the shadow of a weathered brick-and-concrete building with a shameful past.

(Mike Simons photos)
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        They came to remember the military-sponsored radiation experiments on cancer patients in the basement of that building at the former General Hospital, now University Hospital, from 1960 to 1972.

        They also came to celebrate a landmark court case fought by the patients' families. The five-year battle ended in May 1999 with a $3.5 million settlement, an apology from the federal government and a permanent memorial to the casualties of the experiments.

        The waist-high bronze plaque listing 70 patients' names was erected last fall, but Saturday was the first time the patients' loved ones gathered at the site. Joining them was U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith, who handled the court case.

        “The reason for today's gathering is to bring formal closure to the radiation victims' families,” said Gwendon Plair of Washington, D.C., a former Cincinnatian whose mother, Beatrice, subject No. 44 in the experiments, died in 1965. “The memorial is significant because after the money is spent and the apology from President Clinton is long forgotten, the memorial will stand to all that the families went through.”

        Some relatives are dissatisfied that the memorial occupies such an obscure spot, behind a building now known as Pavilion H, Mr. Plair acknowledged. But others came from as far away as California to see it.

        Gesturing toward the memorial, Lillian Pagano, 71, of Delhi Township, said, “Mom, we didn't win all the way, but we won a heck of a battle!

        “I hope my mom and all these people are here with us today,” she said, “and that's all I've got to say because I can't stop crying.”

        Later, Ms. Pagano explained that her mother, Maudie Jacobs of Clifton, was blond with a fair complexion who turned bright red and “looked like she was burning alive” after visiting the hospital for breast cancer treatment. The mother of seven died after 25 days.

        She and others say the patients weren't told they were part of a military experiment, and that the radiation hastened the patients' deaths. The researchers have contended that consent was properly obtained, that the radiation doses were intended to reduce pain and that they may not have been harmful.

        Mike Grodi, a University Hospital vice president, said he hoped the memorial spot, under a huge, gnarled old tree with a bench nearby, would provide “a quiet place for reflection.”

        Mr. Plair, a board member of the National Committee on Radiation Victims, said he thinks the Cincinnati plaque is the only one of its kind. He said Cold War-era experiments, designed to show how radiation would affect military troops, were conducted in a number of U.S. cities. The subjects were usually poor, often black and uneducated, and were chosen because “they were expendable,” he said.

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        Mr. Plair's mother, a yellowish-skinned black woman, turned charcoal-black. “She was burnt from her neck down to her pubic hair,” he said. Hospital personnel told his mother that her pain “was in her mind,” Mr. Plair said.

        Martha Stephens, a former University of Cincinnati English professor who crusaded for years to expose the experiments, said it's important for word to spread about the memorial site — and about the case.

        “We hope more people will know what a horror, what a nightmare we had here,” she said.

        Ms. Stephens said news accounts of the Cincinnati experiments have often failed to convey that more than one doctor was involved. “It wouldn't be so frightening if there had been one doctor,” she said. “This was a massive collusion ... It involved a large community of doctors and the federal government and a major college of medicine.”

        Ms. Stephens said Judge Beckwith's 1995 ruling in the case has become famous. Citing a constitutional right to “bodily integrity,” the judge refused to grant immunity to the government-employed researchers.

        The radiation victims' families on Saturday gave the judge a standing ovation. Then she spoke briefly.

        “This lawsuit was a call of conscience for the entire country and the government,” she said, calling the experiments “a terrible breach of trust” between the citizens and the government.

        Mr. Plair said Judge Beckwith displayed “courage, moxie and guts” in her handling of the case. In an interview after the program, Judge Beckwith, a UC graduate whose grandfather served on the university's board, said, “It really hurts you to think that your alma mater may have been involved in something so reprehensible.”

        A lawyer who represented the families, John H. Metz, said seeing the case through was one of the highlights of his life, because it embodies an important lesson.

        He said the United States is the only nation in the world where ordinary citizens can hold the government accountable, and the radiation case shows “the Constitution continues to live, but only through the vigilance and courage of we the people.”


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