From 1957-78, body parts were taken from corpses for radiological tests without the next of kin being asked for permission or even informed. Nuclear and government agencies seemed particularly interested in radiological testing of dead children – because of concerns about strontium-90 contamination and its potential impact on growing bones. A few articles about this ‘body snatchers’ scandal are posted here …
Answers for 300 mothers
By Colin James
May 5, 2003
THREE hundred South Australian mothers have learned for the first time where their babies were buried following their deaths in public hospitals up to 40 years ago.
They are among 1200 people for whom the State Government has been forced to provide counselling over the removal of body parts and bones from dead relatives without their knowledge.
The Department of Human Services has conducted official investigations into 1500 cases in response to revelations that public hospitals had conducted autopsies on children and removed organs, tissue samples and bones without the knowledge or consent of families.
A departmental spokeswoman said locating the 300 burial sites had been a “fantastic result” because the women predominantly in their 50s or 60s had found out finally what happened to their babies.
“These were women who, because of how things were done at the time, never got to see their babies or hold their babies and who have wondered for many years what happened to them,” she said.
“As a result of the investigations we conducted, we have located their babies for them and have been able to tell them where they are. There has been a mix of emotions, from extreme anger and betrayal to relief that finally some answers have been given about what happened.”
Many of the women wanted to visit the gravesites of their babies while others requested copies of autopsy reports, footprints, photographs or to see organs kept in a scientific museum at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
Thirty women requested the return of organs or tissue samples so they could be buried with other remains of their children.
Another five families have asked for samples of ash from bones which were burnt as part of international testing for radioactive fallout. “We have spoken to and helped people from across South Australia and interstate,” the spokeswoman said.
“It was a huge project as we have given feedback and provided counselling to 1200 people over the telephone and we have met face-to-face with 400 people.
“A lot of it was about giving reassurance as many felt disillusioned with the system.”
The spokeswoman said a team of counsellors formed to handle the organ and tissue sample investigations was re-formed earlier this year to oversee inquiries about a secret Commonwealth Government program which ran between 1957 and 1978 to test the bones of dead Australians for a by-product of the British nuclear tests in Australia known as strontium 90.
The strontium-90 hotline began operating in February following the return to Adelaide of 900 ash samples taken predominantly from South Australian babies, toddlers, young children and teenagers.
The samples were the only ones remaining from 3058 bones collected from bodies and sent to Melbourne, where they were burnt in a high-temperature furnace and analysed for radioactive contamination.
The spokeswoman said the response to the strontium-90 hotline had not been as big as expected; 192 people had rung to determine whether relatives were on the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency database.
“Of these, 35 were matched against the register and callers were provided with feedback and phone counselling,” she said.
The bones of Cold War contention
By Paul Heinrichs and Steve Dow
June 10, 2001
It was January 18, 1955. The Cold War was very chilly indeed, and out in the Pacific, things were getting rather too hot.
Hydrogen bombs of ever-increasing power were being tested in the atmosphere, and the one known as Bravo in March, 1954, accidentally irradiated the Marshall Islands.
Along with the mushroom cloud, it seemed the balloon of public opinion had gone up.
In this climate, the US Atomic Energy Commission convened a biophysics conference to discuss speeding up the secret projects aimed at acquiring the precise knowledge necessary to predict the effects of radioactive fall-out.
The problem was that the research depended upon a plentiful supply of baby bones so that the most dangerous element of radioactive fall-out, strontium-90, could be measured.
It was a fateful day. The meeting, partly reported in transcripts on the Internet, made decisions that affected thousands of babies around the world, past, present and future, dead and alive.
One of the consequences, it might be argued, was sparing the world future horrors. Data collected helped lead to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.
But this knowledge was achieved at a human cost. The aftershocks continue today in places as far apart as Britain and Australia, where an outpouring of grief and bewilderment is overtaking some of the mothers who lost babies long ago, and now do not know what happened to them.
In Britain, there is newly released evidence that baby bodies were delivered to American laboratories, and in Australia, as authorities now freely admit, an extensive program from 1957-78 saw bones removed from up to 5000 bodies for use in the research.
According to this newspaper’s research in 1981, and again in the mid-1990s, at least three big public hospitals in Melbourne – the Royal Children’s, the Royal Women’s and the Queen Victoria Medical Centre – were involved in removing the bones, not all with their parents’ consent.
The bones were reduced to ash, which was sent to the US and Britain for testing until eventually, in the 1970s, Australian laboratories were able to do the job themselves.
It was a well-known topic in scientific circles, as the results were published and discussed widely. Yet from their beginning, there was also a clandestine nature to the research, especially in the US.
Known as projects Gabriel and Sunshine, they had proceeded at a leisurely, scientific pace. But just as the pressure came on to get results more quickly, the supply of stillborn babies seemed to end.
It was in this context that one of Sunshine’s founders, the eminent chemist Willard Frank Libby of the University of Chicago – an AEC commissioner – came to the fore.
Dr Libby had been associated with the Manhattan Project from 1941-45, helping to develop a method for separating uranium isotopes. In 1947, he made the discovery for which he was in 1960 to be awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry – the carbon-14 dating technique, used to date material from former living organisms up to an age of 50,000 years. It was published in 1952, and made it possible to determine such fascinating ancient timelines as the New Kingdom pharaohs of 1400 BC.
If Dr Libby was an expert in dry bones, he was a good deal less sensitive when it came to obtaining human bone samples for research.
“So human samples are of prime importance and if anybody knows how to do a good job of body snatching, they will really be serving their country,” he is recorded as saying on a meeting transcript.
Dr Libby recalled that when Project Sunshine was begun in 1953, there had been anticipation that this would be a problem.
“I don’t know how to snatch bodies,” he said. “In the original study … we hired an expensive law firm to look up the law of body snatching … It is not very encouraging. It shows you how very difficult it is going to be to do legally.”
Documents show the scheme had proceeded from the start on the basis of a lie. Medical staff were told that the skeleton collection was being used to measure natural radiation, not fall-out.
The worldwide assay, which began in 1953 and took material from 20 countries, was kept a secret.
At the meeting, discussion ensued about getting bodies through unofficial “channels” in places where there were not so many rules. Columbia University’s J. Laurence Kulp mentioned Houston – “They have a lot of poverty cases and so on …” – and also that the dean of his medical school had contacts all over the world “where he is sure we could develop similar programs … in particular, we could develop a program in Australia, South America, Africa, in the Near East, and in Scandinavian countries …”.
He advocated overcoming difficulties through good personal relations with the medical personnel. Another suggestion was that overseas collectors should be paid to ensure supply.
There were other discussions about whether, if the level of secrecy was dropped, it might be easier to obtain samples. But 18 months later, when another proposal to obtain children’s milk teeth was raised, Dr Libby issued a warning. “I would not encourage publicity in connection with the program. We have found that in collecting human samples, publicity is not particularly helpful.”
But the Sunshine research eventually became public when the Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson raised the issue during the 1956 US presidential campaign.
In October that year, Dr Libby also talked about it when opening a new science building in Washington, and Dr Kulp’s report on strontium-90 in man, based on data from the worldwide network, was published in the February, 1957, issue of Science. The first congressional hearings and the dangers of fall-out followed in May and June of 1957.
In Britain, newspapers last week published details of lists of bodies obtained from hospitals and sent to the US. There were 27 cadavers in one consignment.
Files held by Britain’s nuclear establishment at Harwell, in Oxfordshire, have not been released, but the evidence has been obtained from minutiae revealed in the 1995 American investigation of the issue ordered by former US president Bill Clinton.
In Australia, authorities said there was no evidence that whole bodies of babies were sent for testing, although US authorities are checking their records.
Last week, the chief executive of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Authority, John Loy, confirmed the bone-testing program over 21 years, first written up in a 1962 issue of Science.
It had begun, he said, under the auspices of the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee, which reviewed safety issues surrounding British atomic tests in Australia.
Under the program, pathologists in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane provided bone-tissue specimens from people up to 40, including babies, which were then reduced to ash and sent abroad for testing.
In 1981, this newspaper reported the program, revealing that many of the hospitals involved removed the bones from babies without consent. An official explained that autopsies were performed routinely without consent and “as consent wasn’t strictly required, it wasn’t always obtained”.
A spokesman for the Royal Children’s said it had provided bones from 200 bodies a year for many years. He said staff collected tissue only when permission for an autopsy had been given by parents or guardians, and staff always gave an explanation of why the tissue was needed and how it would be used. The hospital had “no particular trouble” in obtaining consent.
But after 10 years, the hospitals were becoming forgetful, and the Federal Government introduced a payment of $100-$200 a year for the bones they supplied to the Commonwealth X-Ray and Radium Laboratory, later to become the Australian Radiation Laboratory.
At the Royal Women’s, the money went straight to the mortician. At one Sydney hospital, though, the money was believed to go into the staff fund.
There was an inquiry by the NSW Health Commission, which confirmed the bones were mainly from babies, and plastic had been inserted to mask the removal.
A federal Health Department spokesman in Canberra said the tests were the only accurate way of finding the accumulation of strontium-90 in the environment, and that there was nothing clandestine about them. “We were aware of the moral and ethical questions raised, but it was up to the hospitals to make their own arrangements,” he said.
Just how they were made is still a matter of interest to Victoria’s Still Births and Neonatal Deaths Support group, whose past president, Janette Reynolds, believes questions need to be asked of the major hospitals.
Ms Reynolds said that, since press reports surfaced on Tuesday, volunteers at SANDS had been inundated with calls from families who either could not learn what happened to their stillborn babies or were angry at how they had been treated by hospitals.
“We have walked along with families who have gone on that searching trail,” she said. “Perhaps some of those babies may have ended up going overseas.”
Peter Campbell, a former director of pathology at the Royal Children’s Hospital who now works for the Victorian Coroner, said he was unaware of stillborns or their bones being sent overseas.
But it was certainly true that foetuses under 28 weeks were treated as “waste material”.
“We’re talking years ago when attitudes were different,” Dr Campbell said. “I’m not saying they were right, but they were different. It’s true that foetuses were discarded or buried anonymously. Certainly some babies were disposed of. At the time there was a lot of anxiety about atomic energy. It was the height of the Cold War, you’ve got to remember. You could justify all sorts of things.”
The body snatchers
Sydney Morning Herald
June 9, 2001
Evidence that thousands of dead babies were used to measure fallout from nuclear tests makes chilling reading, Deborah Smith reports.
It was January 1955, and none of the scientists working on a top-secret project, codenamed Sunshine, was in any doubt about the urgency of the research. As they gathered in Washington for their annual conference they also knew what they needed most: access to a reliable supply of dead human bodies, particularly those of children, and from places as far away as Australia.
The previous year the US Government had staged its biggest and most dramatic series of nuclear tests. In a Cold War battle to keep pace with Soviet technology, the US had repeatedly pounded the Marshall Islands with massive nuclear bombs. Project Sunshine had been established the year before, in 1953, to study the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear explosions on plants, animals and people around the entire globe. As one member of the project put it simply at the 1955 meeting, they had set out to determine “the number of atomic bombs that can be used without endangering the human race”.
The project leader was Dr Willard Libby, of the University of Chicago. In 1947 he had developed a carbon-dating method for ancient objects, using a highly sensitive Geiger counter, and had tested it out on 5,000-year-old samples from Egyptian tombs. The discovery led to Libby winning a Nobel Prize in 1960. But in the wake of the dramatic 1954 Marshall Islands explosions, the academic chemist’s mind was on much more recently deceased people.
At the secret 1955 scientific meeting he made the statement for which he will be remembered most. Obtaining more human samples from around the world to test for levels of radioactive strontium-90 in the bones was a priority for Project Sunshine, he told the 29 assembled scientists. “If anybody knows how to do a good job of body snatching, they will really be serving their country.”
An expensive law firm had been hired in 1953 to advise the team on the “law of body snatching”, Libby went on. “It is not very encouraging. It shows how very difficult it is going to be to do it legally.” The project had been fortunate to have obtained a large number of stillborn babies, he said. “This supply, however, has now been cut off also, and shows no sign of being rejuvenated.”
From discussions at the meeting, and a 1956 paper by Libby on the stillborn research in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the stillborns appear to have all come from the US, mainly from Chicago. The team at that stage, however, had also tested human bones – “usually, ribs, vertebrae, or leg bones” – from England, Japan, India, Chile and Brazil.
The testing laboratories were still refining their techniques and the American scientists at the 1955 meeting compared their different strontium-90 results on human material at length, as well as their results on milk, soil, plants and animal bones. Rather than deciding they needed more stillborns, the general conclusion was that they needed samples from young children.
Strontium-90 is incorporated into growing bone, so its level in adults is low. And the scientists decided the surprisingly low levels they had detected in stillborns was probably due to exchange of bone between the mother and foetus during pregnancy.
To illustrate the point, Dr Laurence Kulp described his results on an “interesting pair”, a 29-year-old mother who died in childbirth and her 42-week stillborn. Both had the same strontium-90 levels in their bones, he found. Kulp had a lot more exciting news to tell his team-mates. He announced he had found three “excellent sources of human material”, in Vancouver, Houston and New York. The samples were already flowing in, he said. “That is wonderful,” exclaimed Libby.
Kulp continued. “Down in Houston they don’t have all these rules. They claim they can get virtually every death in the age range we are interested in [one to 40]. They have a lot of poverty cases and so on. They have at least one or two of this kind of pair [dead mother and baby] per month.”
Most of the 10 to 20 bone samples a month would be rib, he said. But “in the case of Houston we have gotten some leg bone because they don’t have to worry how the individual looks when they get through”.
But that wasn’t all. Kulp had recently spoken to a doctor at Columbia Medical School. “He has contacts all over the world where he is sure we can develop identical programs. In particular, we could develop a program in Australia, South America, Africa, in the Near East, and in Scandinavian countries if the people here would like.”
Two years later, in early 1957, Kulp reported in the journal Science that 1,500 samples of autopsy bones – mostly ribs – had been received from a worldwide network of 17 collection stations, including Germany, Taiwan and Puerto Rico.
Their location had been “limited by our contact with physicians in certain centres”, he wrote. Australia was one of four new stations about to come on-line, the paper revealed.
By early 1958, analyses had been done on “rib” bones from three Australian babies under four, two older children and 10 adults.
By mid-1960, the team had collected 9,000 samples of human bone from 30 locations. “These have included foetuses, single bone samples from individuals of all ages, and whole skeletons [most from New York],” Kulp wrote in Science.
The Australian samples included 52 from babies under four, 27 from children and teenagers, and 87 from adults. They were the first of thousands more taken over the next 20 years. By 1960, the Project Sunshine team had concluded that plants which had taken up strontium-90 from contaminated rain was the main way the radioactive substance entered the human diet. What the gruesome research had also revealed was that strontium-90 levels in humans around the world was on the rise, increasing 50 per cent between 1958 and 1959.
One-year-old babies had the highest amounts – seven times the average – in 1959. But this would drop rapidly “if there is no further atmospheric contamination”, Kulp wrote in his 1960 paper.
The US Government investigated Project Sunshine six years ago, as part of an extensive inquiry into Cold War research involving humans. Hundreds of documents, including a transcript of the secret 1955 meeting , were posted on the Internet.
Horrific experiments, such as dosing pregnant women with radioactive cocktails, and radiating the testicles of prisoners, tended to overshadow the bone-stealing issue when the report was handed down in 1995. But it was revived this week in a British newspaper, with the claim that stillborn babies from Australia were among those “snatched and shipped to the US for classified nuclear experiments”.
Federal and most State health ministers instigated investigations. The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency confirmed on Wednesday that the bone collection program had begun in 1957 with Federal Government approval, under the auspices of its Atomic Weapons Test Safety Committee. The program continued until 1978, with bones taken from thousands of dead babies and adults, not always with family authority.
According to the nuclear safety agency, pathologists in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney provided bones from humans aged from zero to 40. They were ashed here and sent to the US and Britain for strontium testing. Later the analysis was also done in Australia. The agency is preparing a report for the Federal Government but has found no evidence so far that bodies of Australian stillborn babies were transported overseas. A Herald search of the declassified US documents has also found no mention of this practice.
British documents from the 1950s, however, clearly reveal the extent of strontium-90 studies on stillborn babies in that country. The Atomic Energy Research Establishment reports list the many districts from where the stillborns came, and the bones examined – mostly leg bones. The reports thank the assisting pathologists by name.
Larry Arbeiter, a spokesman for the University of Chicago, where Libby worked, this week defended the research as necessary because of the large amounts of radioactive material being released into the atmosphere during the arms race. The results put vital pressure on governments to stop above-ground testing, he said.
Dead babies used for A-bomb tests
By Jamie Walker
June 5, 2001
HEALTH Minister Michael Wooldridge was last night investigating allegations that bodies of dead Australian babies were shipped to the US for use in atomic experiments in the 1950s and ’60s.
The macabre trade – detailed in Freedom of Information documents released by the US Department of Energy – was conducted over 15 years, it was reported. The experiments were used to check the effects on the human body of fallout from atom bomb tests. As well as stillborn children, the bodies of infants were obtained by the US scientists.
Hospitals in Australia, Britain, Canada, Hong Kong, South America and the US provided a total of 6000 bodies. There were no details of how many came from Australia.
Parents were never asked permission or told what had happened to the remains of their children, Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper reported.
The top-secret experiments were codenamed Project Sunshine and the bodies were cremated in the US after use.
The human “guinea pigs” were not named in the documents, The Observer newspaper reported in London, but assigned codenames as part of tight security surrounding the experiments. Baby B-1102 is listed as a boy who died at eight months. Baby B-595 was a girl aged 13 months when she died.
Britain become involved in 1955 when Willard Libby of the University of Chicago called a secret meeting to appeal for large numbers of bodies – preferably of stillborn or newborn babies – for the experiments.
According to documents obtained by The Observer, Dr Libby, a renowned scientist who later won the Nobel prize for research into carbon-dating techniques, said at the meeting: “Human samples are of prime importance, and if anybody knows how to do a good job of body-snatching, they will really be serving their country.
“We hired an expensive law firm to look up the law on body-snatching. It is not very encouraging. It shows how very difficult it is going to be to do it legally.”
About 50 of the bodies came from Britain, some of them from top hospitals. These include the Central Middlesex Hospital, Royal Cancer Hospital in London, the Royal Hospital for Sick Children as well as hospitals in Bristol and Glasgow.
Last night Mr Wooldridge said he was concerned and would be checking into the veracity of the allegations with Health Department officials.
“If such practices were to occur today they would be highly unethical, if not illegal,” a spokesman said.
Direct responsibility for the issue lay with relevant state and territory government because they had jurisdiction over hospitals, he said.
Body parts may be returned
By Sean Parnell
Sunday Times (News Limited)
July 22, 2002
THOUSANDS of human organs and bones taken from corpses for research may be handed back to families of the deceased.
The Federal Department of Health and Ageing is considering a national hotline for people to obtain information about the body parts following two separate inquiries by the Australian Health Ethics Committee.
The organs were retained after autopsies while the bones were used in a 21-year nuclear testing program. In both cases, next-of-kin were mostly unaware the body parts had not been buried or cremated with the deceased.
The committee found some ashes of the bones were still in storage and the institutions which provided the bones for testing, mostly public hospitals, should pay for disposal as requested by the families.
The committee made similar findings and recommendations concerning organs retained after autopsy and urged the Federal Government to consider reimbursing state health departments for any costs incurred in disposing of the body parts.
But in both cases, the committee urged authorities to allow families of the deceased to make the first call as some people would probably prefer not to know what had happened to the body of their loved one.
A nationally co-ordinated information program is expected in September.
A Queensland Health spokesman said the department would provide counsellors to deal with inquiries from families of the deceased.
The spokesman said the families of the deceased would be allowed to retrieve the body parts if they wanted special disposal arrangements.
After three years, all unclaimed body parts were likely to be disposed of in a public ceremony.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Ageing did not return calls last week, but the issue was believed to have been discussed at a Health Ministers’ meeting in Darwin.
More than a third of about 22,000 bone samples used for testing the radioisotope Strontium 90 came from Queensland.
The Mater and Royal Brisbane hospitals participated in the program from 1957 to 1978.
In April, health ministers agreed on a new code of practice governing the use of body parts removed during autopsy, ensuring that clinicians first sought approval of the dead person’s family.