Category Archives: Daniel Drake

Review: The Treatment

book cover

Martha Stephens’ “The Treatment”

This is a difficult book for me to review for many reasons. I grew up in and around Cincinnati. Cincinnati history was the topic of my capstone paper for my BA in history a few years ago. A class on medical history by a great professor at Miami University hooked me on the topic. After graduation I took to researching Cincinnati’s Dr. Daniel Drake, 1785-1852. I read everything I could to learn about the state of medicine and how it advanced during his life of practicing and teaching medicine. There were a few histories I only read the parts that covered up to the end of his life but there were some that really grabbed my interest that I read cover to cover. Harriet Washington’s “Medical Apartheid” was one of those. That is where I first heard about the Department of Defense funded radiation experiments performed in Cincinnati University Hospital from 1960 until 1972 and where I first heard of Martha Stephen’s book “The Treatment: the story of those who died in the Cincinnati radiation experiments”. It took many months for me to put my hands on a copy and I grew more eager to read it as more time passed.

I was only a few dozen pages into the book before I turned to the appendix listing all the research subjects, my grandmother had died quickly of cancer in 1973. I was happy to see that her name was not among the human guinea pigs selected for “treatment”. The author, Martha Stephens, was involved in much of the fight to expose the radiation program to the public, first as a member of the Junior Faculty Association that brought the program to the attention of the entire University of Cincinnati, not simply a few members of the medical school. (By the way, I have to point out that both the university and the medical school were founded by Dr. Daniel Drake.) Later she worked with the families of the research subjects, helping find them and helping them publicize their lawsuit. Because she was involved in the events some of the book reads like a memoir and the more she talked about herself the more I began to understand that she had been my English professor at UC’s Evening College back in the late 1970s. That, I think, is a full disclosure of my biases over this book. I feel very connected to the story, in some small way I am. I was over eager to read the book. I feel a little protective of Dr. Drake’s school and hospital and, although my degree is from Miami University nearly half my credits were from UC.

I really expected to like this book. That could play into my disappointment with it. Professor Stephens teaches English, not history. The book is disorganized and at times is more of a memoir, covering events unconnected to the subject of the work, than anything else. One of the most blatant offenses to what historical training I have was when she put words into the victims attorney at the start of the hearings. Yes, she pointed out that the speech was what she wanted him to say but I was expecting a work of history, not a fantasy on what should have happened in the eyes of the, non-lawyer, author.

Stephens also falls into the trap that makes so much scholarly writing unintelligible, writing to prove possession of a PhD rather than to clearly and precisely pass on information. I am a college graduate who has been an avid reader for over half a century, why should I need to pull out a dictionary to unravel a sentence that simply says “the apartment was small and neat?” Occasionally a literary reference can be the best way to bring out shared experiences between the author and the readers but multiple references to multiple works on one page is simply egotism.

The last third of the book did start to put the story together in a historically valid way. Sort of anyway. There was still massive gaps in the information that seemed to be equal parts inability to do historical research and editorial blind spots. This is an important story. It concerns Cold War fears, the arrogance of medical researchers brought on by big grants and a God complex. Simply told the story is this, post Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was obvious that radiation was an invisible and mysterious factor soldiers in a nuclear war would have to contend with. After an exposure how could doctors triage their patients, which ones were walking dead men due to the radiation and which should the military spend valuable resources to treat? That is the question that the Department of Defense wanted answered when they funded the University of Cincinnati Medical School’s radiation experiments.

To answer that question the radiation lab selected cancer patients to be given massive doses of radiation in single exposure over their whole body. Exactly like a soldier near an atomic explosion would suffer. Then the doctors would collect and examine blood and urine samples looking for a tell tale marker they could use to determine exposure when the dosage was unknown, as on a battlefield. Other tests were often performed, after all how often do you get a patient exposed to a near lethal dose of radiation to study? Over the twelve years of the study 115 people were irradiated. They ranged in ages from 80 years old to only 9 years old. All were said to have terminal cancer but among the many types of cancer the patients were diagnosed with there were many of the solid tumor variety that it was well understood that whole body radiation was not effective against. The patients were not told this. They were simply told that they were being taken for a “treatment”. They were not told that it could be deadly. They were not told that it was a Department of Defense study. They were not told that the doctors did not expect the patients to get any benefit from the “treatment”. To be fair they were not told that there might be a benefit. Approximately 1 in 4 patients would die within 60 days of the treatment, some that were living normal, active lives up to the day of the treatment.

Over the years various members of the university’s research board would question the program, what was its goal? Was it ethical? The objections would abruptly end for reasons unknown to Stephens until the Junior Faculty Association, which Stephens was a member of, got wind of the “treatments” and investigated. Their objections were handled quietly within the university and the program was stopped and buried.

Nearly twenty years later a woman working at the hospital, transcribing records of an old research project, came across her aunts name. She was listed as a subject, something the family never knew about. Her curiosity led to a multi-year legal action against the university, the city, the doctors, and the federal government that included a historic decision that repeatedly referenced the Nuremberg Code, a code of behavior developed by the Allies after the war crimes trials of World War Two that were to offer guidance on performing medical research without committing war crimes, sometimes referred to as crimes against humanity. According the the doctors of the UC Hospital radiation experiments the only ethical standards in existence when the study began, in 1960, were written for the ethical treatment of animals.

There is a story here that needs a good historian to bring it out. Unfortunately Stephens “The Treatment” only scratches the surface.

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The Drakes and Valentine’s Day

The DrakesI would argue that there was a major change in the study of history that began sometime around 1961 roughly with the publications of Edward Hallet Carr’s work, “What is History?” Although I use that as a marker I think the change had more to do with the G I Bill financed history professors coming into their professional prime about that time. They had a wider life experience than the WASP professors of earlier times. After the 1960s a wider range of players began to turn up in scholarly works of history. By the 1990s history was told in a way that included both sexes and all genders, all colors, all nationalities, and most economic levels.

What does this have to do with Dr. Daniel Drake and Valentine’s Day? When something out of the ordinary turns up in historical writing, even secondary sources like biographies, is needs to examined. The unusual feature that turns up in Drakes biographies is Harriet Sisson, his wife. Older histories mention wives as a gateway to mentioning children or important male relatives, or for a few decades in the mid 20th century just as assurance that the male being written about was not homosexual. But Harriet, who did have Drake’s children and did have important male relatives*, is mentioned far more than just for that information.

I have not yet read any of Drake’s letters so I won’t go out on a limb and say that Drake “loved” his wife in the modern sense but I will say that from all accounts it looks like he was very fond of her. Most healers of Drake’s time rode a horse to visit patients outside the city or village. “Doctors on Horseback” was even the title of James Thomas Flexner’s 1937 book of biographies of Early American physicians. Drake drove a carriage so he and Harriet could be together. In the fall of 1815 Drake traveled to Philadelphia to attend his second and final year at the medical college to earn his medical degree. Daniel and Harriet left their two small sons with his brother’s family and they went together. The trip, like much of their life together was bitter-sweet. On the road to Philadelphia Harriet became sick and delayed them for three weeks. Daniel stayed by her side even though he arrived two weeks after classes began. Before the term ended Drakes brother arrived with news from home. Charles Daniel, their eldest son, had fallen and badly broken his leg and John Mansfield, their youngest, had fallen ill and died. According to the sources Daniel took his heartbroken wife to Annapolis to grieve the loss of their baby with family. I can only imagine that Daniel was also heartbroken but even when his most recent biography was published. 1961, you would not say that for fear of making him look “unmanly”.

Shortly after returning to their family in Cincinnati Daniel Drake, now M.D., received an offer to teach at the Transylvania College Medical Department in Lexington. In the autumn of 1818 the Drakes relocate for the school term to Lexington. Except for two years that Drake spends founding the institutions that would become the University of Cincinnati and the UC College of Medicine, the family moves between summers in Cincinnati and winters in Lexington. Harriet’s health suffers but Daniel is always there to give her the best care available in the 1820s. One year they leave Cincinnati early so Daniel can take Harriet to “health spas”, resorts built around mineral springs where they believed the water restored health. At one they met and became friends with Henry Clay.

By the end of the 23-24 school term it was obvious that Harriet’s health was failing again. Daniel resigned his position and took Harriet home to Cincinnati. She rallied enough that they attended a celebration of the official opening of the Miami Erie Canal which connected Cincinnati and the Ohio River system to the Great Lakes and the New York Erie Canal System. Then she really became sick. Daniel, a professor of Medical Materia, think pharmacology, vowed that she would have only the best, the purest medicine that could be made and he made it with his own hands.

Unfortunately for the couple he did just that. I don’t know exactly what “medicine” he prepared for her but mercury and arsenic were then considered important medications. Daniel’s mentor at the Philadelphia Medical College, Dr. Benjamin Rush, was a big advocate of both mercury and bleeding. It is likely that Harriet was bleed by her husband in his quest to save her. She died September 30, 1825 at the age of 37. Their youngest daughter, Harriet Echo, was 6. Daniel never remarried. On November 5 of 1852 he was found dead, according to rumor in a pool of blood. He had been sick and although bleeding was out of favor he still believed in the practice. He opened his own vein looking for relief but, at age 67, he passed out before he stopped the flow of blood. He and Harriet rest next to each other in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove where he had her and his parents moved when it opened in 1851.

* Her uncle, Jared Mansfield, who she was living with him when she met Drake.

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Drake and the weather

engraving of Daniel DrakeI have been researching the life and times of Daniel Drake for a few years now. Originally I wanted to publish an article to help me get into grad school but that has been put on hold. That might be a good thing if it depends on me publishing an article. Studying a persons life turns out to be much easier when you understand the times they lived in, if you don’t understand their times you will miss most of the story.

In June of 1810 Drake published his first book, “Notices concerning Cincinnati”*. In this book he looks at the natural environment around his new home town. He examines the geology, botany, zoology, and climate, especially the climate, and publishes it all for the benefit of his new neighbors. I will come back to how it was going to benefit his neighbors later. For now I want to look at his focus on the climate. In addition to creating charts comparing the high and low temperatures in Cincinnati and Philadelphia he mentions a book by Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney (Constantin Volney) titled “A view of the Climate and Soil of the United States of America: with supplementary remarks opon Florida: on the French Colonies on the Mississippi and Ohio, and in Canada; and on the Aboriginal Tribes of America” and disputes the claim that “Trees and herbs are found on the western side of the mountains, three degrees farther north than the same products are found spontaneously growing on the eastern side” (pg 122 {161 of the pdf}). Volney also claimed that cotton thrived near Cincinnati.

Almost a year later Drake wrote two letters, one to the science section of the Philadelphia “Port Folio”, and another published as an editorial in Cincinnati’s “Western Spy” pointing out the errors in Volney’s work. In February of 1816 Drake’s second book, “Natural and statistical view; or picture of Cincinnati and the Miami country, illustrated by maps. With an appendix, containing observations on the late earthquakes, the aurora borealis, and the south-west wind”, was published and he arranged through an acquaintance who worked for the government to send a copy to Thomas Jefferson. This book covered much of the same ground as the first but this one was the 19th century equivalent of 20th century boosterism and marketing designed to draw settlers to the area.

Why did Drake send a copy to Jefferson? A previous biographer of Drake claims there are letters that might shed some light on that question but so far I haven’t found them. I have a few theories, it could be that Jefferson was chosen because of his known interest in the sciences, after all he organized the Lewis and Clark expeditions to investigate the same natural phenomenon that Drake was writing about. Or it could relate to Jefferson’s relationship with Volney. Jefferson worked with Volney to translate Volney’s book “The Ruins, Or, a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires” into English and he admired Volney’s intellect. But what did Drake hope to gain by pointing out what he saw as errors made by a respected European scholar?

Maybe he was after the truth? If you look at today’s USDA Plant Hardiness Chart you will see that the zones rise as they go east, not west as Volney wrote, the climate is tougher as you travel west. It turns out that Drake and Volney were just early entries in a debate that raged during the the 19th century. Were settlers causing climate change by clearing vast areas of forest?

That is not as absurd as it might sound to us in the 21st century. At that time everyone knew that it was cooler in a forest than in an open field even if they did not understand the “swamp-cooler” effect of transpiration. I am less sure if they understood that deforestation can also lead to desertification. Thanks to James Rogers Fleming’s book “Meteorology in America, 1800-1870” I understand that a few decades earlier nobody would have asked the question. Climate, like its child weather, was totally dependent on God’s Will. When a thunderstorm came it was because people had offended God and he let loose demons on the world. People gathered to pray for God’s favor and rang church bells to frighten the demons away. Then Ben Franklin began investigating weather and demonstrated that lightning was just electricity their fear was slowly replaced by curiosity.

Drake and Volney were just two of the earliest to join the weather debate. Until dependable barometers and hydrometers were developed, approximately the 1830s, the discussion was mostly hypothetical, based on only a few years of spotty data on temperature and rainfall. The US Army Medical Department was one of the first institutions to encourage investigation into the nature of the weather. You see a few thousand years earlier some Greek physicians theorized that disease was caused by bad air and ever since physicians have been interested in weather and the local environment.

Drake’s first published writing, “Some Account of the Epidemic Disease Which Prevail at Mays-Lick in Kentucky”* an article for the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal published in 1808, two years after Drake spent a year in the Philadelphia Medical College. At the time writing such an essay examining the disease potential of a town’s climate and geology was one of the requirements for receiving a medical degree. Dr. Benjamin Dudley’s thesis, “A sketch of the medical topography of Lexington and its vicinity : being an inaugural dissertation, submitted to the examination of the Rev. John Andrews …, the Trustees, and medical faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, on the 21st day of April, 1806, for the degree of Doctor of Medicine” is online at the National Library of Medicine.

Achieving an understanding of the times someone lived in can be as time consuming as researching the details of their life. It can be also be very distracting. If you are curious about how the Army Medical Department became concerned with weather and disease I suggest you look at Elizabeth Anne Fenn’s book “Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82”.

* reprinted in full in Drake, Daniel, Henry D. Shapiro, and Zane L. Miller. Physician to the West: selected writings of Daniel Drake on science & society. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.

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