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.