Magazine article Anglican Journal

Ottawa Experimented on Native Kids: Deliberately Denied Basic Dental Care

Magazine article Anglican Journal

Ottawa Experimented on Native Kids: Deliberately Denied Basic Dental Care

Article excerpt

The federal government denied basic dental care and experimented with the diets of Native children in order to study the effects of Vitamin C and fluoride treatment. The controlled experiment took place in the late 1940s and early 50s in at least four Indian residential schools, documents in the National Archives reveal.

Although the aim of the five-year "nutritional study" was supposed to benefit Native communities, many parents weren't even informed of the experiment.

In a letter of Oct. 3, 1949, Dr. H.K. Brown, chief of the dental health division, requested certain dental treatments be halted at the United Church's Port Alberni residential school.

"No specialized, over-all type of dental service should be provided, such as the use of sodium fluoride, dental prophylaxis or even urea compounds."

Dr. Brown explains that, "In this study dental caries [tooth decay] and gingivitis are both important factors in assessing nutritional status. The caries index could be upset by such specialized dental measures as those referred to above; and dental prophylaxis could alter the gingival picture sufficiently to make it of questionable value as a possible index of Vitamin C deficiency."

The one-page letter goes on to note that pulling bad teeth or filling cavities wouldn't interfere with more cavities developing. "The regular filling and extraction service which has been provided in the past will not interfere with the nutritional study as it will not materially reduce the occurrence of new caries lesions or affect the gingival conditions."

But the physician who supervised the Department of National Health and Welfare (now Health Canada) study defends the experiment and withdrawal of dental treatment.

"It was not a deliberate attempt to leave children to develop caries except for a limited time or place or purpose, and only then to study the effects of Vitamin C or fluoride," said Dr. L.B. Pett in a recent interview.

But he admitted parental consent was not always obtained for those children involved in the study.

Even by the standards of the day, that was unacceptable. Not only was consent required, it had to be understood, according to a leading medical ethicist.

"The statement that consent has been obtained has little meaning unless the subject or his guardian is capable of understanding what is to be undertaken and unless all hazards are made clear," wrote bioethicist and former Harvard Medical School professor Henry Beecher in an essay, Ethics and Clinical Research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1966.

Consent is essential for moral, sociological and legal reasons, Prof. Beecher concluded.

But Dr. Pett said the findings of the study were made readily available to the schools and communities involved so that nutrition could be improved. Dr. Pett, now 90, was formerly chief of the nutritional division of Health and Welfare.

Correspondence between Dr. Pett and those working with him indicates the government study was designed "to evolve methods for improving health, not only of school children, but of the whole Indian population."

The scientists also tinkered with the students' diet. In 1952, Dr. Pett wrote to the director of Indian health services, Dr. P.E. Moore, making reference to the study and changes to diet. …

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