Good Nutrition, Radioactive Breakfast Cereal

Breakfast cereal advertisements: left, Quaker Oats (1906); right; Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes (1910s). via Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections, Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
Breakfast cereal: wholesome, nutritious, and normally not radioactive. Ads from ca. 1900, left; 1906, right.

I’d prefer living in an America where doctors never used kids as lab animals, and “feeble-minded” folks who were already locked up were not feared by the powers that be.

Charles Dudley Arnold's photo of Chicago Expo 1893; Court of Honor, Columbia fountain.But I live in a very real America.

We had problems in my youth. We still do.

This is not a perfect country, but on the whole I like being an American: and appreciate living in a country where we are allowed to learn about — and from — our past mistakes.

This week I’m talking about the time a giant of the food industry and a prestigious university dosed kids with radioactive breakfast cereal. I am not making that up.

Looking Back at Fernald State School and a “Science Club”

Daderot's photo: Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center, Waltham, Massachusetts, USA; formerly Walter E. Fernald State School; founded as the Massachusetts School for Idiot and Feeble-Minded Youth. The site is near Waltham, Massachusetts, USA. (August 29, 2010)
Fernald State School: known for radioactive oatmeal and once a leader in America’s eugenics movement.

Back in high school, I was in a science club of sorts. A friend of mine and I had organized the Moorhead Model Rocket Association (MMRA), which lasted until we graduated. And that’s another topic.

Since the MMRA was a science club, lowercase, not part of a school’s activities, we didn’t get the perks bestowed on members of the Fernald State School’s Science Club.

Which was arguably just as well, since those perks included parties, tickets to Red Sox games — FSS was near Boston — and radioactive breakfast cereal.

Special treatment for some boys at Fernald State School started in 1949. By 1953, maybe earlier, their group was called the Science Club.

To their credit, folks running the Fernald State School Science Club asked parents and guardians of the kids for their permission. At the time, that was an outstanding example of obtaining informed consent.

Take this form, sent in 1949, for example:

To the Superintendent of the Walter E. Fernald State School:

This is to state that I give my permission for the participation of in the project mentioned in your letter of______

Witnessed by:

______ [signature]______

Date:______ Relationship ______
(Permission form from Parent to the Superintendent of the Walter E. Fernald State School, 2 November 1949 (“This is to state that I give my permission . . .”), as cited by the Task Force on Human Subject Research, in “A Report on the Use of Radioactive Materials,” appendix B, document 19.)

Just one problem. The letter referenced in the form didn’t mention that the “project” involved radioactive breakfast cereal.

Neither did this one, sent in 1953, giving responsible adults an opportunity to deprive their kids of “a special breakfast” and other perks:

“Dear Parent:

“In previous years we have done some examinations in connection with the nutritional department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the purposes of helping to improve the nutrition of our children and to help them in general more efficiently than before.

“For the checking up of the children, we occasionally need to take some blood samples, which are then analyzed. The blood samples are taken after one test meal which consists of a special breakfast meal containing a certain amount of calcium. We have asked for volunteers to give a sample of blood once a month for three months, and your son has agreed to volunteer because the boys who belong to the Science Club have many additional privileges. They get a quart of milk daily during that time, and are taken to a baseball game, to the beach and to some outside dinners and they enjoy it greatly.

“I hope that you have no objection that your son is voluntarily participating in this study. The first study will start on Monday, June 8th, and if you have not expressed any objections we will assume that your son may participate.

“Sincerely yours,

“Clemens E. Benda, M.D.

“[Fernald] Clinical Director


“Malcom J. Farrell, M.D.

“[Fernald] Superintendent
(Second letter from Fernald State School to parents/guardians. Dated May 1953. via “ACHRE Report”, Chapter 7: The Studies at the Fernald School (1995))

The “special breakfasts” were Quaker Oatmeal, laced with radioactive tracers.1 There was a good reason for that, which will take a little explaining.

Science and Cereal

Kellogg's cereal advertisement: Gary Moore and Tony the Tiger (Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes), in Life Magazine, page 133 (October 3, 1955) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permissionQuaker Oatmeal was made from oats. Quaker’s competitor, Cream of Wheat, was farina-based.

By 1949, both companies were dealing both with competition from sugary breakfast cereals and nutrition-conscious customers.

Back in the 1940s, some research had apparently showed that phytic acid inhibits absorption of iron.

I tried tracking that down, but the closest I found was a 1948 study of phytic acid and calcium; and that’s yet another topic.

Anyway, oats has phytic acid, farina doesn’t, so Quaker’s funded their own research.

And that’s why Quaker Oats, MIT and the Fernald State School fed special kids radioactive breakfast cereal.

More precisely, they ate oatmeal made from oats coated with radioactive iron tracers;2 which isn’t quite as dreadful as it sounds.

Zombies and Mutants, Radon and the Minnesota Department of Health

Lobby card for Cahn and Siodmak's 'Creature with the Atom Brain.' (1955)Films like “Creature with the Atom Brain” and “The Damned” show that radioactivity leads to zombies and spooky mutants.

That’s cinema. This week I’m talking about real life, where ambient or background radiation is — well, it’s in the background, pretty much everywhere.

Natural background radiation varies, depending on place: and in some cases, time. Minnesota homes, for example, have about three times as much radon in our air as the American average.

That, along with ‘you should get tested’ advice from the Minnesota Department of Health, has produced a market for radon testing gadgets and services.

Right now, there’s evidence that overly-high radon levels and lung cancer coincide. But I don’t let that bother me. We live in an old farmhouse that’s now in Sauk Centre. Our main concern is keeping heating bills down by plugging leaks.

Some background radiation comes from stuff that we do. Oddly enough, coal-burning power plants give off more radionuclides than nuclear plants.

Getting back to radioactive tracers, the idea of tracking radioactive substances in living plants and animals goes back at least to George de Hevesy’s 1913 experiments.

Joseph Hamilton tracked human digestion with radioactive sodium in 1937.3

In 1949, when the Quaker-Fernald-MIT experiments started, radioactive tracers were still part of a new and exciting field.

We’ve learned quite a bit since then. Including how little we know (for sure) about exactly where radioactivity’s safe limits are.

Good News, Bad News and Flexible Ethics

Daderot's photo: Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center, Waltham, Massachusetts, USA; formerly Walter E. Fernald State School; founded as the Massachusetts School for Idiot and Feeble-Minded Youth; near Waltham, Massachusetts, USA. (August 29, 2010)
Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center, Walter E. Fernald State School, founded as the Massachusetts School for Idiot and Feeble-Minded Youth.

Results of the Fernald State School, Massachusetts, radioactive breakfast experiments could have been much worse.

For one thing, the subjects survived.

For another, decades later, a Massachusetts state panel said that the Massachusetts state institution hadn’t saddled any of them with long-term health problems.

That’s plausible, since the boys absorbed 170 to 330 millirems of radiation. That’s roughly the equivalent of receiving 30 consecutive chest x-rays. (A millirem is a thousandth of a rem. Rem, roentgen equivalent man, is a unit used for measuring low radiation doses.)

And, as an added bonus, one of the experiments involving radioactive calcium tracers provided data for later osteoporosis research.4

That’s the good news.

“A Disappointing Type of Feeling”, “‘This is Their Debt to Society'”

Screenshot: part of 'ACHRE Report', Chapter 7: The Studies at the Fernald School (ca. 1995)The bad news is that Fernald State School was not a nice place to live. Not for the boys.

Some of them (allegedly) lived with cognitive impairments.

Others were boys who had been discarded for one reason or another.

That bad news was also good news for researchers with flexible ethics.

One of the problems faced by enthusiastic researchers was that the American public was generally squeamish about using no-account boys as lab animals,

But, by following the ‘what they don’t know won’t hurt me’ principle, important people could publish in professional journals and stay safely under the radar.

Usually. I’ll get back to that.

Returning to good news, Fred Boyce — one of the Fernald test subjects — had a pretty good memory:

“…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….

“…But for Boyce, the pain of abuse lingers. ‘It’s a funny type of animosity. It’s a disappointing type of feeling,’ he said of the researchers who had the opportunity to help, but instead took advantage of students in need.”
(“A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Radioactive Oatmeal Go Down“, Lorraine Boissoneault, Smithsonian Magazine (March 8, 2017) [emphasis mine])

“I won’t tell you now about the severe physical and mental abuse, but I can assure you, it was no Boys’ Town. The idea of getting consent for experiments under these conditions was not only cruel but hypocritical. They bribed us by offering us special privileges, knowing that we had so little that we would do practically anything for attention; and to say, I quote, ‘This is their debt to society,’ end quote, as if we were worth no more than laboratory mice, is unforgivable.”
(ACHRE Report, Chapter 7: The Studies at the Fernald School. footnote 92 (1995))

“Unforgivable” is a rather strong term, but I sympathize with Mr. Boyce.

Folks running the Fernand State School had one sort of authority. The scientists who made use of the institution’s experimental subjects had another. Both decided that using the subjects as if they were “no more than laboratory mice”.

That was a very bad idea. The problem, by the way, wasn’t that someone had authority.

We need folks with authority — legitimate authority — if we want an approximation of a well-ordered and prosperous society. Legitimate authority works for the common good of the group it runs. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1897-1898, 1903)

Wrapping up the Fernand thing, a quick recap of its aliases:5

  • 1848 — Operated as the Experimental School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children at the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind
  • 1850 — Incorporated as the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth by the state of Massachusetts
  • 1883 — Renamed Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded
  • 1925 — Renamed Walter E. Fernald State School
  • 1993 — Renamed Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center

Change and Constants

Photo from 'Souvenir Album of American cities: Catholic Churches of Cincinnati and Hamilton County' (1896): Good Samaritan Hospital, operated by Sisters of Charity.
Good Samaritan Hospital, Cincinnati, late 1800s.

Change happens. A “School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children” became a “State School” and a “Developmental Center” before releasing its final resident in 2014.

I thought I was done with Fernald for this week, but this ties in with the “change” thing:

“…On a Saturday in early January 1942, the Fernald received a communiqué from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health titled ‘DIRECTIONS FROM DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH REGARDING ENEMY ALIENS.’

“The document cited the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s guidelines for carrying out orders from President Roosevelt to identify and detain German, Italian, and Japanese-born Americans as enemy aliens. It then instructed the school’s staff to restrict the movement of eight Italian-born patients and one Italian American staff person mistakenly believed to be a resident. All of them were now considered enemy aliens of the U.S. government.

“The letter is the first ever uncovered that proves people with disabilities who were in the permanent care of the state were specifically targeted as enemy aliens during World War II. It is a perplexing document, demanding the confinement of people whose movements were already restricted.…”
(“‘Enemies’ with Disabilities“, “Eight Italian Americans, the Fernald School, and the government’s watchful eye during World War II.” Alex Green, Roundtable, Lapham’s Quarterly (June 4, 2018)) [emphasis mine]

I don’t see that document as particularly “perplexing”, partly because I’m not exactly “American” — by some standards.

Irish Attitudes

Detail, Joseph F. Keppler's 'Uncle Sam's lodging-house:' an anti-Irish cartoon. Puck centerfold. (June 7, 1882)My ancestors spent a long time in northwestern Europe, but I’m not “Anglo”.

There’s a lot of Irish in me, due to a young Irishman who came sniffing around the daughter of a decent American family.

As another of my ancestors said “he doesn’t have family, he’s Irish”.

But the kids got married anyway, and that eventually led to me.

My mother was Norwegian, by the way: five-foot-nothing with curly black hair. Not one of those blonde giants.

Small wonder I’m not overly concerned with “racial purity”. Or eugenics, and that’s almost another topic.

One point I’m trying to make is that different eras have different quirks.

Some of those quirks are just quirky: nothing basically wrong with them, like bell bottom pants or cat videos. Others aren’t quite so harmless. like assuming that someone with the wrong sort of parents is an enemy of the state.

Individuals have quirks, too. And, again, some are harmless.

Others: well, there’s Dr. Roberts Bartholow, a doctor with Cincinnati’s Good Samaritan Hospital. Mary Rafferty, Irish and a servant, came to the hospital in 1874.

Someone diagnosed a lesion on her head as cancer, Dr. Bartholow figured she’d die of cancer, so he stuck wires in her brain, recorded what happened when he zapped her, and published results of his research.

Even though this was 1874 and Ms. Rafferty wasn’t of English ancestry, some doctors said Dr. Bartholow hadn’t acted properly. Even the American Medical Association said so.6

Eugenics and Me

Eugenics law historical marker, Indiana.Eugenics sounded like a good idea: improving the race, making humanity just ever so much brighter and better.

Basically and briefly, America’s self-described best and brightest thought that eugenics was the best thing since sliced bread: which wasn’t invented until 1912, so you know how progressive the idea was.

Cleansing humanity’s gene pool hit a serious public relations snag after WWII. That’s yet again another topic, for another time.

As eugenics relates to the Fernand State School, folks with “cognitive impairments” were high on the list of folks who needed to be weeded out.

I’m not overly keen on the idea. Partly because I think eugenics is a bad idea. (Catechism, 2268)

And partly because I can’t reasonably support efforts to prevent people like me.

I was born with defective hips, and might have been labeled as cognitively impaired.

I’m not, but I do have a number of neurological glitches. Including but not limited to ADHD and ASD.7

I’m not particularly stupid, but odd things can happen when I don’t pay attention.

A case in point: during a recent (by my standards) hospital visit, I was given a brief and routine cognitive test. I’d let my attention wander for at least one question, and as a result the test showed that I’m borderline retarded. Or whatever the current euphemism is.

Happily, this is Sauk Center, I’ve lived here for decades and talk like a professor.

But that experience encourages a certain caution with regards to assertions that some kid who isn’t from a ‘nice family’ is a few bricks short of a full hod.

‘What They Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Me’

Willowbrook State School.I talked about my defective hips back in March, but they’re involved with a case of the ‘what they don’t know won’t hurt me’ principle and staying under the radar .

Besides, Mr. Boyce’s “…as if we were worth no more than laboratory mice…” remark reminded me of my parents’ experience with an alternatively-ethical doctor.

I was born in 1951. A doctor correctly diagnosed my congenital hip dysplasia. Maybe he figured I was a hopeless case, doomed to a defective life. Or maybe he saw me as a dandy test subject. Either way, he didn’t tell my parents.

USAF Staff Sgt Eric T. Sheler's photo: A two week-old's Phenylketonuria, or PKU, screening. (2007) via Wikipedia, use w/o permission.“…Instead, he had them bring me in at intervals to see what my hips were doing.

“He made notes about what happens when hip dysplasia isn’t treated. Then he wrote a learned paper on the subject. His paper was published in a medical journal. A copy of the journal wound up in a college library’s collection.

“That’s where my father read the doctor’s learned paper.

“My mother intercepted him before he reached the doctor. She said, ‘no, I will speak with him.’ Which she did. And never shared what they discussed.

“The doctor disappeared a few days later. Maybe it would have been more humane to have let an enraged Irishman conduct the interview….”
(“COVID-19, Cells, Viruses and mRNA Vaccines”, Trust and Prudence, (December 5, 2020))

Again, I don’t know what that doctor was thinking. I can guess, though, at why he apparently didn’t see a problem with (1) letting a crippled baby go untreated and (2) writing about his actions for a medical journal.

This was the early 1950s.

Doctors were among the “elite” — the ‘better sort’ — who might have little contact with the masses, other than that which their profession demanded. He may not have realized that a non-doctor might read one of “his” professional publications.


Walt Kelly's Deacon Mushrat and Simple J. Malarkey. (1953)Today’s America is not an ideal society.

Neither was the America I grew up in.

“…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.’…”
(“A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Radioactive Oatmeal Go Down“, Lorraine Boissoneault, Smithsonian Magazine (March 8, 2017))

I remember when an increasing number of folks were realizing that the Hollywood blacklist was a bad idea.

I think today’s “cancel culture” is a problem, too. But I also figure we’ll eventually remember that “free to agree with me” isn’t “free”.8

Eugenics was and is a bad idea. Even if ‘improving the race’ has given way to slogans like ‘quality lifestyle’ and ‘every child a wanted child’.

It doesn’t feel like good news, but I see reason for hope in today’s frantic headlines.

I remember seeing the same sort of thing back in my youth.

Supporters of The Establishment were watching their world crumble around them, and not taking it at all well.

I think America is going through a similar spasm of clarity. Today’s Establishment has different slogans and somewhat different preferences. But I see the same old unwillingness to let ‘not one of us’ folks speak their minds.

I emphatically am not looking forward to the impending presidential election’s pandemonium, and that’s still another topic.

More, including why I think “medical ethics” isn’t necessarily an oxymoron:

1 Baseball and a ‘Bedlam’ near Boston:

2 “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs”, which I didn’t discuss this week:

3 Sience, sense and nonsense:

4 Science and consequences:

5 Details:

6 It can (and occasionally does) happen here:

7 Taking eugenics personally:

8 Living in an imperfect world:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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