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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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Filed under Book review, Daniel Drake, Education, History, Medical History, Politics, True Crime, Uncategorized

Review: Behind the Lines by Peter Bronson

Behind the Lines

Peter Bronson’s Behind the Line

Peter Bronson’s “Behind the lines : behind the lines of action, between the lines of truth, the untold stories of the Cincinnati riots” presents itself as a history of the April 2001 riots in Cincinnati. Bronson wrote for the Cincinnati Enquirer as a columnist and served as editor of the editorial pages. Journalists can write some exceptional works of history. Alan Moorehead’s The March To Tunis The North African War 1940-1943, is a product of his time covering the war for Australian newspapers. Cornealis Ryan, a journalist by trade, is best known for several histories he wrote after interviewing combatants from the European theater, The Longest Day, A Bridge too Far, and others. Barbara Tuchman was a journalist before writing The Guns of August. Unfortunately Bronson is not even close to writing this caliber of history.

While reading the book I took notes on all the rules on writing history that Bronson broke. Objectivity, fairness, logic, research, documentation are all missing. Bronson flips fairness on its head to support his bias. The match that lit the riot’s fuse was the shooting death of 19 year old Timothy Thomas. As early as the introduction Bronson is telling the readers that Thomas had “more than a dozen” warrants and begins to explain away the riot with, “The cop was white. Thomas was black and unarmed”. (pg 3) Just seven pages later Bronson repeats “…Timothy Thomas, 19, wanted on more than a dozen warrants…” and describes the location of the shooting this way. “On a police map that marked shootings with black pins, the alley where Thomas was shot, at Republic and 13th, would be marked by a dark cluster of pins like feeding flies. Cops called it a shooting gallery, one of the most dangerous streets in the city, behind enemy lines where drug gangs ruled at night and only the brave, stupid, lost or heavily armed wondered during the daylight.” (pg 10) Not bad prose for a mystery novel but in non-fiction it only serves to damn Thomas for being in that location.

One of the most powerful complaints voiced by the community after the Thomas shooting was that Cincinnati police had killed 15 African American men. To debunk this claim Bronson details each killing and gives evidence to justify each death.
“#5 Daniel Williams flagged down police officer Kathleen Conway in 1998, slugged her in the face and shot her four times in the legs and abdomen. … Conway shot him twice in the head in self defense.” (pg 83) “ #10 Adam Wheeler was fresh out of prison in 2001, wanted on three felony warrants when he had a shootout with police… He fired six times at the police. They shot back and killed him.” (pg 83) Bronson even explains less cut and dried shootings in detail until “#15 Timothy Thomas resisted arrest and fled in 2001. He was shot as he came around a corner in a dark alley.” (pg 85). Why no details? Not even a mention of “over a dozen warrants”?

It is not until later we learn that “Police acknowledge there is no proof he was involved in the drug trade.” (pg 106) And that the warrants 14 total, 3 for expired
driver’s license, 4 seat belt violations, 5 for driving without a license, and 2 for obstruction of official business. (ibid.) Is it fair to the reader, or to Timothy Thomas, to leave the impression that Bronson painted of Thomas as a violent drug criminal? The image Bronson painted that image in the first ten pages of the book. He leaves it stand ⅔ of the way through the book before he shares that Thomas did not have any record of drug crimes or of violence.

Is it fair to the reader that Bronson makes us wait to hear that Cincinnati Police Chief Streicher said “I was frankly flabbergasted that he was found not guilty” when asked about the trial of the police officer that shot Thomas. (pg 136) I will try to be fair to Chief Streicher, there were hints in the narrative that he questioned the legality of the shooting. I cannot be so generous with Bronson . His prejudices shine through the pages. He describes a man protesting at a city council meeting as wearing “a garish yellow and black robe with matching pillbox hat”. (pg 23) There is one other mention of clothing, the mayor’s olive green shirt, was noted without judgement. When introducing Assistant Police Chief Ron Twitty the idea that he attained his rank only through affirmative action is repeated with no evidence. It is a fact that there was an order to hire African American officers. Only 7% of the city’s police force was African American even though they made up 40% of the population. In another open demonstration of bias, the chapter titled “Lawless in Cincinnati” Branson gives his account of the problem in the City Council, democrats.

Somehow the author also managed to include comments on slavery and a chapter on the history of riots. His digression into slave history was both misplaced and wrong. He wrote that the opening of the Suspension Bridge in 1866 connected a free and a slave state. The 13th Amendment was ratified December 18, 1865. The new bridge connected two free states in a slave free nation. His trip into the history of riots is even more “riotous”. To support his thesis that riots are only caused by the rioters he invokes colonial protests of the Stamp Act, the 1778 Doctor’s Riot, the Zoot Suit Riot and others. He wrote, “After the Irish churches and schools were burned in Boston in 1844, Philadelphia decided to blame the primary victims – Catholics – for the riots. In 1871 California decided to blame the Chinese who were lynched by a mob shouting “Burn the Chinks”. … More recently the Los Angeles Police were blamed for the 1991 Rodney King riots, and in Cincinnati, the police were blamed for the race riots of 2001, although they never fired a shot of live ammunition and, amazingly, nobody was killed.” Nobody, I have to add, except Timothy Thomas. Bronson seems to have forgotten him.

There was one more sentence in Bronson’s assessment of blame. “And even the trampled mayor of New York City quickly moved to appease the mob and blame the medical student victims for the Doctor’s Riot of 1788.” At the time there was no law against stealing a human body. Grave robbers stripped the body then left the clothes and other grave goods behind to avoid prosecution. Minority cemeteries and paupers graves were most often targeted. There was fear that stealing the bodies of propertied whites could bring legislation making the entire practice illegal and subject to a worse punishment. As it was, a good beating by family of the departed was all they needed to worry about. Dissection was illegal. The medical students waving the severed arm from the second floor window of their medical school were breaking the law. And they were flaunting it. They had the, lets say misfortune, to taunt a young man whose mother had just died with “I have your mother’s arm.” The boy went home to his father and uncles and together with their neighbors they went to retrieve the women’s desecrated corpse from the medical school. How was it not the medical students, and their anatomy professor’s fault? Where except from the vaulted throne of privilege can it be seen any other way?

There are many more points in this book that I want to rant about. This is already my longest review so I will try to show some restraint. Don’t read this book. Don’t read Bronson’s other books. Life is too short to waste time reading bad history.

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