When Radiation, Child Abuse, Eugenics And Quaker Oats Collided

By Debra Kelly on Monday, April 13, 2015
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“We didn’t know anything at the time. We just thought we were special.” —Fred Boyce, one of the test subjects at Fernald

In A Nutshell

In the 1990s, the Fernald Developmental Center came under scrutiny for practices and experiments that it had carried out under rules put in place by its pro-eugenics third superintendent, Walter Fernald. In a joint experiment between the institution, MIT and Quaker Oats, students throughout the 1940s and 1950s were given breakfasts that were heavier on the radiation than they were on the nutrition. That was all in addition to the horrific accounts of abuse and neglect that had long gone on through the school’s history. When investigations concluded in the 1990s, MIT and Quaker Oats agreed to pay a $1.85 million settlement to those who had been test subjects. As a final footnote, MIT issued a statement that more or less said everyone was overreacting about the whole thing, and it wasn’t really that much radiation.

The Whole Bushel

Every so often, a story comes to light that just has so many layers of horrific to it that you, as a human being, like to think that it’s complete fiction, and that other human beings couldn’t possibly be capable of things so incredibly terrible.

They’re capable of it.

In 2014, the Fernald Developmental Center officially, finally, closed. It was originally built and opened in 1848, when it was called the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, and at the time, it was a state-of-the-art and incredibly forward-thinking institution. On paper, it might even look that way. It was one of the first schools of its kind, designed to provide a home, education, and care for what were then called “idiots and the feeble-minded.”

The “Fernald” part of the name came later, from Walter Fernald. The third superintendent of the school, Fernald was a hugely outspoken proponent of eugenics. The idea of selective breeding and sterilization to help guide the country into what he and his colleagues thought was the right direction was a strangely popular one that Hitler would eventually grow to admire.

If it seems like a supporter of eugenics might not be the best person to be running a school for the disabled, that’s absolutely right.

The school started into a downward spiral of cruelty and abuse. In addition to children with disabilities, it also became a home for orphans, children who had been abandoned by their parents, and the children of unmarried women. Fernald was striving to limit the growth and development of children that he felt shouldn’t be reproducing, and he was doing so by keeping them in deplorable conditions that were only exposed through a series of investigations and lawsuits in the 1970s.

Reports of beatings and abuse were common, but if there was one thing that the residents there couldn’t complain about, it was that they were well fed and would even get second helpings if they asked for them.

Or they could complain about that, too, as they were given food laced with radiation.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the residents were unwittingly a part of an experiment that was a pretty horrific joint effort between some pretty big names. The institution partnered with MIT and Quaker Oats in a project that would look at the effects of radiation on children. Investigations in the 1990s showed that around 54 children were used in radiation testing.

As if that isn’t bad enough, the reactions of MIT representatives to the lawsuits was a little mind-boggling. In 1998, MIT and Quaker Oats settled on a $1.85 million payment to the people that had been subjected to the testing. And rather than being apologetic about what had happened in their school’s past, they were little more than blase.

According to the Vice President for Research and Dean for Graduate Education, he’s looking at the payment for what it is—about the tuition costs for 20 students. He also issued a statement saying that MIT was going to continue to stand by its position that the radiation wasn’t actually enough to actually, really, honestly hurt any of the students, or cause any long-lasting damage. The amount of radiation they were exposed to, he said, was found to be about on par with the amount of radiation a person would be exposed to just by living in Denver for a year.

So clearly, feeding radioactive Quaker Oats to students wasn’t all that bad, and the only thing that he does admit is that they probably should have gone to more of an effort to get consent from the families of those who were involved. Yikes.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Wikimedia
The Tech: MIT to Pay Victims $1.85 Million in Fernald Radiation Settlement
TASH: Closing of Fernald Developmental Center
Listverse: 10 Horrifying Facts About American Eugenics