Bayou City Body Snatchers

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

The researchers initially got their bones from stillborn babies, acquired mainly through Libby's physician contacts in Chicago hospitals. Scientists thought dead newborns would be good to study. Strontium 90 is absorbed by children much more than by adults, because children's bones are still developing rapidly. However, the stillborn supply dried up before long. Besides, data showed that newborns had strontium 90 levels identical to their mothers' -- they hadn't independently absorbed the dangerous material. The scientists decided they needed older specimens: babies and toddlers.

From 1953 to 1955, Project Sunshine collected cadavers and bones from 223 dead people -- infants and adults -- from throughout the world: everywhere from Puerto Rico to Taiwan to Liberia. In the United States, material was shipped from New York City, Boston, Denver and Houston. In all, 17 countries and cities supplied specimens. Of the U.S. sites, Houston contributed the most samples, with 36. (Worldwide, only Chile's 59 specimens topped Houston.) At the project's conclusion around 1961, some 9,000 samples of human bones and whole skeletons -- including almost 600 fetuses -- had been collected from throughout the world.

It is unclear now how many of these came from Houston. Most of the researchers have died, including John Bugher, who is said to have managed the samples from Texas. Laurence Kulp, an 80-year-old retiree in Washington State, was a geochemist at Columbia University during Project Sunshine. He was also the scientist who crowed at the 1955 secret meeting about how easy it was to get Houston bodies.

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.

"The cadavers and bone samples came packed in dry ice," Kulp recalled in a recent interview. "We would 'ash' them -- burn them to a powder -- after they came in." Kulp said Houston was considered a good supplier of youthful bodies because the city had more shooting homicides, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, than elsewhere in the country. "In Houston at the time, there were no restrictions on the use of unclaimed bodies for any scientific purpose."

Kulp did not remember who harvested the Houston bodies or shipped them to Project Sunshine. Jachimczyk said he never heard of the project, which was mostly completed by the time he took the medical examiner job. It is doubtful that the names of those whose bodies were used will ever be known, in Houston or elsewhere. When affected families have been located, their stories have sometimes been wrenching. The 1995 British documentary Deadly Experiments tells about the mother of a stillborn whose legs were cut off by British hospital doctors in 1957. She remembers that she was not allowed to put a christening robe on her daughter for her funeral because researchers did not want to reveal that they had done an amputation. "It upset me terribly that she wasn't christened," the mother said. "No one asked me about… taking bits and pieces from her."

Meanwhile, additional bodies in Houston were being used for other government-sponsored radiation research. But in these studies, the specimens were still alive.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eileen Welsome's book, The Plutonium Files, relates the whole story. It describes some of the thousands of government-sponsored radiation experiments done from the 1940s to the 1970s on Americans. The guinea pigs were military personnel, prisoners, hospital and clinic patients, and even mentally handicapped children in a state institution. Many or most did not know they were being studied. In one experiment, youngsters in a group home in Massachusetts were fed radioactive oatmeal for breakfast. In another, a pregnant woman who went to a Nashville prenatal clinic was given a radioactive liquid and was told it was a tonic for her pregnancy. In several cities -- including Houston -- hospitalized cancer victims had their entire bodies bombarded with more radiation than had ever been administered to such patients.

These experiments were done because the government wanted to know how troops and civilians would be affected by atomic war. What would radiation do to soldiers' health? To their ability to fight? Could blood or urine be tested to see how much radiation people received? (If so, doctors could quickly decide whom to treat and who was already doomed to die.)

Until 1994, when the Department of Energy released reams of previously classified documents, most of these studies were state secrets. Among the declassified papers were records of five "whole body" radiation experiments done on cancer patients. Two of them occurred in Houston. One was conducted at M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute from 1951 to 1956 and used 263 people as guinea pigs. It was done under contract with the U.S. Air Force School of Aviation Medicine (SAM), in San Antonio.

At the time, Dr. Hubertus Strughold oversaw the SAM experiments. The German was brought to the United States right after World War II, in a program called Operation Paperclip. Strughold and hundreds of other German doctors and scientists had suspect pasts, yet the United States wanted to keep their expertise out of Soviet hands. U.S. law forbade ex-Nazis and those guilty of atrocities from immigrating. So whenever investigation revealed that scientists had such a history, their files were marked with a paper clip -- signaling that the damning information was to be deleted before immigration officials viewed the records.

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