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Tuesday, March 31, 2015
- A cancer research prize named for a controversial U.S. scientist who expressed racist views and reportedly conducted secret experiments that led to more than a dozen deaths in Puerto Rico, will be renamed, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) has announced.
But the move has failed to satisfy scientists in Puerto Rico, who have denounced the Association for not releasing a report that it commissioned last fall while investigating the matter.
The scientific and social communities on the island, where the scientist conducted controversial experiments in the 1930s, have been waiting to hear the fate of the AACR-Cornelius P. Rhoads Memorial award since October 2002, when the AACR said it first became aware of the allegations.
It has been presenting the annual award for more than 20 years.
Rhoads’ work in Puerto Rico has been contentious ever since a racist letter he wrote was discovered in 1931. In the letter, which the AACR-commissioned report found to be genuine, Rhoads bragged of "killing off eight (Puerto Ricans) and transplanting cancer into several more".
He also wrote that Puerto Ricans were "the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere!"
But in a statement he also says that he was "disappointed, surprised and astounded" when he learned that the AACR will not make public the report it commissioned on Rhoads, who died in 1959. The organisation, Vazquez says, is acting "contrary to sound scientific practices which are based on the free flow of information".
Almost immediately after being told the report is "privileged", Vazquez launched a new campaign to demand that the document, compiled by emeritus professor at Yale Law School and bioethics expert, Jay Katz, is made public.
"A whole nation was insulted by Dr. Rhoads," said Vazquez, a biology professor at the University of Puerto Rico. "Puerto Rico has the right to know what Dr. Katz has uncovered."
But the AACR says that the sole purpose of the report was to provide information to its board of directors in order to determine whether to remove Rhoads’ name from its reward. The report, says the Association, was never intended to be made public.
So far, all the AACR has revealed from the report is that Rhoads did actually write the letter. "The question of why Dr. Rhoads, whose career otherwise was marked by both distinction and compassion, made the unacceptable statements in the 1939 letter probably never will be answered fully," the group said in a statement last week.
William Winslade, a medical ethicist at the University of Texas, says he can understand Vazquez’ motivation to want the report made public, but he believes that the AACR is justified in keeping it private.
"I can understand Vazquez’ continuing desire to expose what he considers an egregious violation of human rights," says Winslade. "But at the same time he’s mistaken in thinking this report is a matter of scientific information."
"Katz’s report was not a scientific project – he was doing a job as a consultant," he adds. "Organisations can seek advice from people and not have to make public that advice."
"It’s not the business of the AACR to engage in a retrospective appraisal of what Rhoads did. They’re not an ethics committee," Winslade says. "Dr Vazquez is on a mission," he adds. "Not a matter of science, but a moral mission."
But if the report contains nothing new, why not release it? asks Vazquez.
Information about the letter has been in the public domain since 1931, when the document was found and the U.S. governor in Puerto Rico ordered an investigation into Rhoads’ work there. The investigation cleared the scientist, but more recently his work has been studied by academics, including Pedro Aponte Vazquez of the University of Puerto Rico, who has written two books on the subject.
But AACR Communications Director Warren Froelich said last October that the Association was "unaware of the serious allegations surrounding Dr. Rhoads" until Vazquez alerted them earlier that month. Speaking more recently, Froelich stressed that Katz’s investigation was strictly limited, focused on whether Rhoads wrote the letter, and was not intended as a survey of Rhoads’s entire career.
In the letter, Rhoads expresses racist views, genocidal desires, and an apparent confession to killing Puerto Ricans.
"I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off eight and transplanting cancer into several more," he writes. "All physicians take delight in the abuse and torture of the unfortunate subjects."
Rhoads wrote the 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.
A laboratory assistant working for Rhoads discovered the letter in the Presbyterian Hospital of San Juan County, at the foot of Rhoads’s microscope. 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 which Rhoads did not deny writing the letter but claimed that it was merely a "parody" written for his personal amusement.
Despite the fact that 13 participants in Rhoads’ project had died – eight of them treated by the scientist 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".
Rhoads 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.
Whatever the meaning of his letter, Rhoads led a high profile and well-regarded scientific career. He was, for example, the first director of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research (from 1945-1959). In 1979, 20 years after he died, the Cornelius P. Rhoads Memorial Award was established by the AACR at the request of an anonymous donor.
Now, after a campaign led by Vazquez, an investigation conducted by Katz and a unanimous vote by the AACR board, the organisation will rename the award. The new name, says Froelich, "will probably be a generic one, not named after someone".
But that will not close the matter for Vazquez, who says he is acting in the spirit of patriotism as well as in the spirit of science by insisting that the AACR release the report. "This is a matter of national pride."
As with his first campaign, which succeeded in getting the Rhoads award renamed, he is confident of success with his second. "I am sure this campaign will be successful," says Vazquez. "And we will not rest until we have seen what is in that report."