Magazine article New African

Medical Scandal! ... How the US Government Used Black People as Guinea Pigs

Magazine article New African

Medical Scandal! ... How the US Government Used Black People as Guinea Pigs

Article excerpt

There is a reason why African-Americans do not like to go to their doctors or even to hospital. Many fear that they will be probed, prodded, and experimented upon without their consent, and return home sicker than when they left--or may not return home at all. It is because throughout their long history in the USA, African-Americans have been secretly used as guinea pigs for medical experimentation by various American governments. Leslie Goffe reports from Washington DC.

THE FEAR THAT THE US GOVERNMENT and medical authorities had been engaged in what has been called a "dark history" of medical experimentation on African-Americans is supported by the release over the past several years of once-secret US government documents showing how, from slavery until today, African-Americans have been America's favourite guinea pig.

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During slavery days, when they were recognised in law as only three-fifths of a man, African-Americans were thrown into burning hot pits by white physicians seeking a cure for sunstroke and had boiling water poured on them by white doctors determined to develop a cure for typhoid and pneumonia.

Free to use and abuse African-Americans as they pleased, white surgeons cracked open and probed the brains of black children and operated on the genitais of enslaved black women, all without anaesthetics. One white physician even pressed hot pokers onto the legs and arms of enslaved African-Americans to discover "how deep black skin was."

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Reluctant to inflict such horrors on their fellow whites, white physicians and medical researchers found in enslaved African-Americans the perfect substitute. "It was said that blacks didn't experience pain, that they were immune to diseases like malaria and heat sickness that made it impossible for whites to work in the field," says Harriet Washington, an African-American, and author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

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Slavery, Washington writes, probably "couldn't have persisted without the physicians who said blacks were inferior and made by the creator to be the workhorses of the white man." The exploitation of African-Americans for medical research did not end with slavery. It continued long afterward.

Ebb Cade's horrific ordeal

In 1945, African-American Ebb Cade was secretly injected with plutonium, the substance used to make nuclear bombs. Cade, a 53-year-old truck driver, was taken to a hospital in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, after breaking several of his bones in a car accident. He became an unwitting guinea pig in a deadly government experiment, and did not realise the doctors caring for him were also employed by the US Atomic Energy Commission. The doctors had been ordered to find out what exposure to plutonium did to the human body.

Injured and helpless in a hospital bed, Ebb Cade was injected with 0.29 microcuries of plutonium-239, more than 4o times the amount a person might expect to be exposed to in an entire lifetime.

A researcher who worked at the hospital in the 194os described it as "a whopping dose" years later. In their efforts to see the effects of plutonium, the researchers pulled out 15 of Cade's teeth to measure plutonium levels in his system. They also collected chips of his bones for study. Held in the hospital for more than six months, Cade rightly suspected that it did not take this long for his broken bones to heal and that he was, in fact, being kept in hospital to be used as a guinea pig.

So, his broken limbs healed, Cade fled the hospital when doctors and nurses were not looking. But he could not escape what the secret nuclear experiments had done to him. Described by doctors when he arrived at the hospital in Oak Ridge as a "well developed and well nourished coloured male in good health", Cade died a few years later of heart failure, aged 61. …

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