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Monday, March 2, 2015
- The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) has commissioned an independent investigation into charges that an esteemed researcher for the Rockefeller Institute caused the deaths of eight Puerto Ricans more than 70 years ago by injecting them with cancerous cells.
The Association has also suspended its annual award in the name of the researcher, Cornelius P. Rhoads, which it has been giving since 1979.
In an interview with IPS, AACR Chief Executive Officer Margaret Foti, asked "that the people of Puerto Rico remain patient and open-minded as we seek to find out what happened".
Information about this aspect of Rhoads’s career has been in the public domain since 1931, when the U.S. governor in Puerto Rico ordered an investigation into the researcher’s work there. The investigation cleared Rhoads, but more recently his work has been studied by academics, who say they have found evidence to support the charges.
For at least 20 years, Pedro Aponte Vazquez, a professor of history at the University of Puerto Rica, has been researching and publishing work on Rhoads, who died in 1959. Much of Aponte Vazquez’s work, including his books ‘Yo Acuso’ (I Accuse) and ‘Cronicas de un Encubrimiento’ (Chronicles of a Cover-Up), supports the allegations, he says.
But an AACR spokesman said the Association was "unaware of the serious allegations surrounding Dr. Rhoads until recently".
Edwin Vazquez, a professor of biology at the University of Puerto Rico, alerted the AACR to the allegations in an Oct. 5 letter, and says he believes the organisation when it says it had no knowledge of the claims.
In his letter, Vazquez requested that the Association suspend the Rhoads award, which is given to researchers under the age for 40 for "meritorious achievement in cancer research". He also contacted colleagues and, soon afterwards, many of them wrote in support of his views.
"I find it morally unacceptable that you confer an award named after a person whose work was inhuman and unethical," said the letter. Vazquez cited several pieces of evidence – all freely available on the Internet – that he said support the allegations.
One of the key pieces of evidence against Rhoads is a handwritten letter attributed to him, which expresses racist views, genocidal desires, and a confession to killing Puerto Ricans.
"The Porto Ricans (sic) are the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere! They are even lower than Italians. What this island (Puerto Rico) needs is not public health work, but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population."
The letter continues: "I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off eight and transplanting cancer into several more,” adding, ”all physicians take delight in the abuse and torture of the unfortunate subjects".
Rhoads apparently wrote this letter while he was working in Puerto Rico as chief pathologist for a Rockefeller Institute project researching a bacterial disease called Sprue. There would have been no reason for Rhoads to infect humans with cancerous cells to research Sprue.
At the time, the president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, publicised the letter, and all of the major Puerto Rican newspapers covered the story.
Soon afterward, the U.S. governor of Puerto Rico ordered an investigation.
During the probe, Rhoads did not deny writing the letter. But despite the fact that 13 participants in Rhoads’s project had died – eight of them treated by Rhoads himself – the prosecutor cleared him and said that even though Rhoads wrote the letter, he was probably just "a mentally ill person or a man with few scruples".
Speaking this week, William Winslade, a medical ethicist at the University of Texas, medical branch, gave a much harsher assessment of Rhoads’s views and alleged activities.
"If these allegations are true," said Winslade, "I think that most people in medical ethics would be appalled and would condemn both his attitude and, more so, his conduct."
The AACR’s decision to suspend the award pending an independent investigation is "exactly right", said Winslade, adding that Jay Katz, a Yale Law School bioethics specialist who the AACR appointed to examine the allegations, is highly qualified, objective, and "the perfect person to investigate this".
Vazquez, the person who first told the AACR about the allegations, is also confident that Katz will be objective and fair, but says, "in my opinion, the AACR should have cancelled the award without having to resort to an investigation".
"But," he adds, "it is still a triumph."
Puerto Rican activists have greeted the AACR’s decision with cautious optimism.
"We’re glad that the AACR has paid attention to us," says Flavio Cumpiano, a Puerto Rican attorney based in Washington. "This is a positive first step."
After Rhoads was cleared in the 1930s Puerto Rico investigation, he went on to establish U.S. Army chemical weapons laboratories in Utah, Maryland, and Panama. For this work he won the Legion of Merit in 1945.
The same year, he was appointed to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which was at that time conducting secret experiments in which prisoners, hospital patients and soldiers were exposed to radiation without giving consent.
These experiments were brought to light in 1994 by the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE).
Whatever the truth of the allegations, Rhoads led a high-profile scientific career. He was, for example, the first director of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research (from 1945 to 1959).
Twenty years after he died in 1959, the Cornelius P. Rhoads Memorial Award was established by the AACR at the request of an anonymous donor.
Since Vazquez brought the allegations to the attention of the AACR last month, there has been outrage in the Puerto Rican academic and social communities as well with extensive coverage in that country’s media.
Cumpiano, who wrote to the AACR in response to Vazquez’s request, says that the suspension of the award demonstrates the power of the Puerto Rican voice.
"When Puerto Ricans come together, they can demand respect," he says. "The Puerto Rican Government, Puerto Rican organisations, Puerto Rican doctors all submitted evidence (to the AACR)," says Cumpiano. "They had to listen."
"The goal now is to have the award eliminated," he adds. "It isn’t over till it’s over."