Bayou City Body Snatchers

How cold war fears fueled a hot market for Houston's human parts business.

Anyone who reads Harper's magazine knows one of its mainstay sections is Readings, a chockablock collection of documents culled from various venues -- everything from sparkling essays originally published in tiny literary journals to embarrassing leaked memos from the CIA to its operatives.

A couple of months ago, Readings ran a strange and disturbing item. It was the transcript of a secret meeting of scientists who worked almost five decades ago for the Atomic Energy Commission's Project Sunshine. The AEC was the forerunner of today's Department of Energy. Project Sunshine was an investigation of strontium 90, one of many radioactive elements released by exploding atomic bombs. Strontium 90 fallout is particularly dangerous because it emits radiation for many generations. After settling in dirt and water, it is absorbed by plants, animals and fish. Then, when humans -- especially growing children -- eat foods such as tuna, cheese and milk, strontium 90 settles in their bones. A population contaminated with strontium 90 becomes a slow, collective time bomb for cancers exacerbated by long-term exposure to radiation.

Project Sunshine researchers operated in the shadow of the cold war, with its intense U.S.-Soviet rivalry and mad rush to atomic bomb testing. The scientists wanted to find out how much strontium 90 was ending up in people. In their words, they hoped to determine "the number of atomic bombs that can be used…without endangering the human race." To do this, they needed human bones. They needed to burn the bones to ash so they could extract and measure the strontium 90. They were particularly concerned about very young children, so they needed bones from infants and toddlers.

David Terrill

Jachimczyk says that before the medical examiner system, Harris County "was delighted" to get rid of unclaimed bodies.
Jachimczyk says that before the medical examiner system, Harris County "was delighted" to get rid of unclaimed bodies.

But where to get the bones? Some states required a special permit to dispose of human remains elsewhere; others required approval from donors or their families. Yet the study was classified -- a cold war secret -- so the researchers could not openly request human specimens. As project director and senior AEC official Willard Libby remarked during the 1955 meeting, "If anyone knows how to do a good job of body snatching, they will really be serving their country." Libby lamented, "I don't know how to snatch bodies." He described hiring "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 it legally."

But there were a few cities where bodies could be "snatched." And one of them was Houston.

"Down in Houston they don't have all these rules," project scientist Laurence Kulp assured Libby in the meeting. "They claim that they can get virtually every death in the age range we are interested in that occurs in the city of Houston. They have a lot of poverty cases and so on." Kulp added that unlike elsewhere, medical technicians in Houston who cut the bones out of corpses "don't have to worry how the individual looks when they get through."

A meeting transcript was released in 1995 by the federal government's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. The release was part of a Department of Energy effort to declassify information about thousands of secret cold war-era radiation experiments that used Americans all over the country -- many of them civilians -- as guinea pigs. Often the testing was done without these people's knowledge or consent.

While the transcript has been floating around the Internet for six years, Harper's recently published it because fresh revelations emerged in June that Project Sunshine imported thousands of baby corpses from Britain, Australia and Hong Kong. Amid uproar from those areas, Houston returns to the limelight as a prime site for the project's body snatching.

Despite the attention from the national and international media, Houston news outlets never did an in-depth look at Project Sunshine or why the city was such a fertile hunting ground for dead human bodies.

Stranger yet, corpses and bones were hardly the only items easily available to medical researchers in the Houston of the 1950s. Live human beings were also available. At M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute (now M.D. Anderson Cancer Center) and Baylor College of Medicine, the government funded studies that zapped cancer patients with radiation -- even though it is not clear if the patients knew they were research subjects, or if the "treatment" was meant to improve their health. The M.D. Anderson studies were sponsored by the air force, whose staff contribution to one Houston research team was an ex-member of the German Nazi Party. He did medical experiments under the Hitler regime, experiments that may have included torture and murder.

Such facts may feel dated, like creepy but musty vestiges of the cold war. Yet the new hot war -- boiling with fears of anthrax and other substances as unfamiliar and terrifying as radioactive ions used to be -- raises fresh questions about studies of wartime toxins' effects on humans. The government once snatched bodies from the Bayou City, put unwitting citizens on dissection tables or bombarded them with radiation. And the reasons are part of history, for both the nation and the city of Houston.

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