When Fred Boyce and dozens of other boys joined the Science Club at Fernald State School in 1949, it was more about the perks than the science. Club members scored tickets to Boston Red Sox games, trips off the school grounds, gifts like Mickey Mouse watches and lots of free breakfasts. But Fernald wasn’t an ordinary school, and the free breakfasts from the Science Club weren’t your average bowl of cereal: the boys were being fed Quaker oatmeal laced with radioactive tracers.
The Fernald State School, originally called The Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, housed mentally disabled children along with those who had been abandoned by their parents. Conditions at the school were often brutal; staff deprived boys of meals, forced them to do manual labor and abused them. Boyce, who lived there after being abandoned by his family, was eager to join the Science Club. He hoped the scientists, in their positions of authority, might see the mistreatment and put an end to it.
“We didn’t know anything at the time,” Boyce said of the experiments. “We just thought we were special.” Learning the truth about the club felt like a deep betrayal.
The boys didn’t find out the whole story about their contaminated cereal for another four decades. During a stretch between the late 1940s and early 1950s, Robert Harris, a professor of nutrition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led three different experiments involving 74 Fernald boys, aged 10 to 17. As part of the study, the boys were fed oatmeal and milk laced with radioactive iron and calcium; in another experiment, scientists directly injected the boys with radioactive calcium.
The Fernald students’ experiment was just one among dozens of radiation experiments approved by the Atomic Energy Commission. Between 1945 and 1962, more than 210,000 civilians and GIs were exposed to radiation, often without knowing it. What seems unthinkable in today’s era of ethics review boards and informed consent was standard procedure at the dawning of the Atomic Age.
John Lantos, a pediatrician at University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and expert in medical ethics, says the experiments were indicative of America’s post-war mindset. “Technology was good, we were the leaders, we were the good guys, so anything we did could not be bad,” he says. “It wasn’t until the ’70s, after the Tuskegee study, that Congress passed federal regulation requiring a specific kind of oversight.”
The Tuskegee study is the benchmark example of medical abuse and involved hundreds of African-American men with syphilis who were promised treatment but never received it. In another case reminiscent of the one at Fernald, students at Willowbrook State School (also considered mentally handicapped) were purposely exposed to the Hepatitis A virus so that researchers could develop a vaccine.
How did a seemingly innocuous breakfast food get tied up with Atomic Age research? At the time, scientists were eager to conduct experiments concerning human health, and the booming breakfast cereal industry meant there was big money to be made or lost. As a result, brands like Quaker wanted science on their side. They’d been locked in competition with another hot breakfast cereal—Cream of Wheat, made with farina—since the early 1900s. And both of the hot cereal companies had to contend with the rise of sugary dry cereals, served with cold milk and a heaping portion of advertising.
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