A highly regarded Reseacher accused of injecting patients with cancer
NEW YORK (GIN)–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.
Meanwhile, the association has suspended its annual award in the name of the researcher, Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads, which it has been giving since 1979.
AACR chief executive officer Margret Foti, Ph.D., has requested “that the people of Puerto Rico remain patient and open-minded as we seek to find out what happened.”
Information about this aspect of Dr. Rhoads’ career has been in the public domain since 1931 when the U.S. governor in Puerto Rico ordered an investigation into Dr. Rhoads’ work there. The investigation cleared the researcher, 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, Dr. Pedro Aponte Vazquez, a professor of history at the University of Puerto Rica, has been researching and publishing work on Dr. Rhoads, who died in 1959. Much of Dr. 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 said.
Nevertheless, an AACR spokesman said that the group was “unaware of the serious allegations surrounding Dr. Rhoads until recently.”
Dr. Edwin Vazquez, a professor of biology at the University of Puerto Rico, was the person who first alerted the AACR to the allegations. He said he believes the AACR when they say that until he wrote to the association on Oct. 5, the officials didn’t know about the allegations.
In his letter, Dr. Vazquez asked the association to suspend the Cornelius P. Rhoads Memorial 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 as well.
“I find it morally unacceptable that you confer an award named after a person whose work was inhuman and unethical,” said part of the letter. He cited several pieces of evidence–all freely available on the internet–that he said support the allegations.
One key piece of evidence against Dr. Rhoads is a handwritten letter attributed to him. The letter 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. All physicians take delight in the abuse and torture of the unfortunate subjects.”
This letter was apparently written by Mr. Rhoads while 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 Dr. Rhoads to infect humans with cancerous cells to research Sprue.
On Nov. 12, 1931, Luis Baldoni, a laboratory assistant working for Dr. Rhoads, discovered this letter in the Presbyterian Hospital of San Juan County at the foot of Dr. Rhoads’s microscope.
The president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, publicized the letter, and all of the major Puerto Rican newspapers covered the story soon afterward, and the U.S. governor of Puerto Rico ordered an investigation.
During the investigation, Dr. Rhoads didn’t deny writing the letter. But in spite of the fact that 13 participants in Dr. Rhoads’ project had died–eight of them treated by Dr. Rhoads himself–the prosecutor cleared him and said that even though Dr. Rhoads wrote the letter, he was probably just “a mentally ill person or a man with few scruples.”
In early December, Dr. William Winslade, a medical ethicist at the University of Texas–Medical Branch, gave a much harsher assessment of Dr. Rhoads’ views and alleged activities.
“If these allegations are true,” said Dr. Winslade, “I think that most people in medical ethics would be appalled and would condemn both his attitude and, more so, his conduct.”
Dr. Winslade acknowledged that scientific practices and beliefs change over time, but said, looking retrospectively, “There is no excuse for that kind of conduct.”
He said the AACR’s decision to suspend the award pending an independent investigation is “exactly right,” and that Dr. Jay Katz, a Yale Law School bioethics specialist who the AACR has appointed to examine the allegations, is highly qualified, objective, and “the perfect person to investigate this.”
Dr. Edwin Vazquez, the person who first told the AACR about the allegations, is also confident that Dr. Katz will be objective and fair. But even so, Dr. Vazquez said, “In my opinion, the AACR should have cancelled the award without having to resort to an investigation.”
Talking of the allegations against Rhoads, Dr. Vazquez, said, “I am certain, I am sure they are true.”
He cites documentary evidence that he said supports the allegations. He notes, for example, that in 1955 Dr. Rhoads published an article, “The Seeing Eye of Science,” which discusses implanting cancerous cells into humans.
Dr. Vazquez also draws attention to Dr. Rhoads’ work with chemical and biological weapons for the U.S. government.
After Dr. 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), which was appointed by President Bill Clinton.
Dr. Rhoads led a high-profile scientific career and was the first director of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research (from 1945-1959).
He died in 1959, and in 1979, the Cornelius P. Rhoads Memorial Award was established by the AACR at the request of an anonymous donor.
Since Dr. Vazquez brought the allegations about Dr. Rhoads to the attention of the AACR in November, there has been outrage in the Puerto Rican academic and social communities. In Puerto Rico there has been a high level of coverage of Mr. Rhoads’ alleged actions, not only in print, but also on radio and television.
The story has barely registered in the American press.