Bayou City Body Snatchers

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

Anyone who reads Harper'smagazine 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.
Gerstner was another Nazi scientist involved in the studies.
Gerstner was another Nazi scientist involved in the studies.

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 couldbe "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'srecently 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.

Joseph Jachimczyk knows a big, if indirect, piece of this Houston history. Now 78 years old and retired, he served as Harris County's medical examiner from 1957 to 1995. The gleaming, modern county morgue is named in his honor. It's a stark contrast to what existed before Jachimczyk took the position of medical examiner. "Before 1957," Jachimczyk recalled in a recent interview, "Houston was highly unusual in that it was one of the largest cities in the country, but it didn't have a medical examiner system. Things here were run the way they still are in little rural counties in Texas: There was no medical examiner, so justices of the peace acted as coroners. If an autopsy was needed, they would rely on the county pathologist. Back then, you heard stories, say, about cause of death recorded as a heart attack, then at the funeral parlor the embalmer would find a knife in the dead person's back. Yup, that was a heart attack, all right -- an attack by a knife!"

Harris County had no official morgue, either. Autopsies were done at Jefferson Davis General Hospital. Built on Allen Parkway in 1938, it was the city and county charity hospital. As described by Jan de Hartog in his nationally acclaimed '60s book The Hospital, Jeff Davis was as ghastly as Dante's inferno:

"The floors were slippery with blood and vomit, littered with soiled linen…blood-soiled mattresses had been flipped over… each man lay in the blood of his predecessor…This was not a hospital," de Hartog noted. "This was a public utility to keep the dead and dying off the streets." It goes without saying that most of them were indigent. Most were also black; white patients were segregated on separate wards. Harris County's de facto morgue was in the basement. It was little more than "a room, about 20 feet by 20 feet, next to Housekeeping," Jachimczyk remembers.

Meanwhile, the Harris County Cemetery on Oates Drive in east Houston was (and still is) the graveyard for paupers, bodies that cannot be identified, and those whose families decline to make private arrangements. The county buries or cremates only a fraction of the overall numbers of the deceased who are needy or unclaimed. When it contracts with funeral homes to do the work, it pays far less than what those businesses charge private clients. In the 1950s the paupers and the unidentified dead were at the mercy of public officials and undertakers. "I heard a lot of hearsay," Jachimczyk said. "For example, that a funeral home would keep a body ten or 15 years after embalming it and collect money from other families with a deceased member, and when they collected enough funds, the funeral home would finally bury the body."

When funeral parlors were unable or unwilling to take on the charity burden, Houston's unclaimed dead were a problem. It could take weeks to identify a body or find family members. Meanwhile, Jachimczyk noted, there was very little refrigeration at the Jeff Davis "morgue." So the Texas Anatomical Board often took over. "Some bodies of paupers were given to the board, who allocated them to medical schools such as Baylor, UT-Galveston and Southwestern in Dallas," Jachimczyk said.

Students at the schools would cut up the cadavers in anatomy class. Professors would do their own dissections and sometimes pickle their work in formaldehyde, then display it in the schools' impromptu teaching museums. Baylor College of Medicine in Houston had such a "museum" in the early 1960s. As the then-teenage daughter of a Baylor researcher, this writer remembers inadvertently wandering into a room there filled with glass tanks.

Smaller tanks contained cross sections of heads that looked like they had been put through the slicer at a delicatessen. The cores of the slices were anonymous reticulated gray matter, but the edges showed features of everyday living people: scalp hair, the curve of a nose, a moustache, lips. Larger tanks held entire torsos: naked bodies with heads, faces, chests, pubic hair, genitals. As I recall, they were males, so intact that they had half-smiles on their faces. And -- I still remember this almost 40 years later -- the cadavers were all black and Hispanic.

Of course, people also willed their bodies to science. But the race factor in Baylor's old "museum," combined with Houston's skewed socioeconomics, suggests that these cadavers were indigents who never signed a donor card. Texas law at the time allowed researchers to use unclaimed bodies for any scientific purpose. They could also take tissue from dead people who wereclaimed, without permission from next of kin.

"Justices of the peace had almost unlimited authority to allocate bodies," said Jachimczyk. "The county was delighted to get rid of them."

Enter Project Sunshine.

Willard Libby of the University of Chicago was already well known among fellow scientists when he became director of the strontium 90 study for the Atomic Energy Commission in 1953. A few years earlier, he had discovered how to use carbon 14 testing to determine the age of artifacts thousands of years old. Libby received a Nobel Prize for that work. In 1954, however, he was busy figuring out how much radiation -- in the form of strontium 90 -- humans could absorb without, as one AEC member put it, "producing monsters."

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.

"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.

Much later, Strughold was publicly implicated in several horrific experiments in the Nazis' Dachau death camp. Before the war, he researched the effects of high altitudes and ocean crashes on German air force pilots. After the Nazis opened Dachau, prisoners were locked into chambers and asphyxiated as the air was sucked out. Gypsies were given nothing to drink for weeks except salt water. Jews were plunged into icy water, then studied as they froze to death.

Once in the United States, Strughold headed SAM's research into health issues affecting this country's air force pilots. One topic of interest was the effect of radiation on pilots' flying abilities. For answers, SAM funded research with M.D. Anderson in Houston. There, radiologist Gilbert Fletcher designed a study in which 263 terminal cancer patients were exposed to as much as 200 roentgens of radiation. This was about 2,000 times more radiation than was considered safe, at the time, for a person to receive in one exposure. In that period, it was more than had ever been used for TBI -- total body irradiation -- cancer treatment. A radiologist who later reviewed the study likened the dose to that received by people at ground zero in Hiroshima.

After the radiation, patients did mechanical and mental exercises, such as moving a stick and a rudder bar to match the position of red and green lights -- a task related to piloting. Their body fluids were measured to search for a dosimeter, a biological marker that would show how much radiation they got.

After the exposure, one young test subject with testicular cancer vomited so much that he had to be carried by stretcher and required a liter of IV saline solution. Of patients who received the maximum radiation, more than a fifth died within two months; none survived more than 20 months. M.D. Anderson tended to have needy patients in the 1950s, and records indicate that many test subjects were African-Americans, or Hispanics who did not understand English well. They received no consent forms to sign; those weren't standard in medical research until the 1970s. Researchers described "an elderly and emaciated Negro male" who died 43 days after exposure -- faster than most people with his type of cancer. Scientists surmised that the radiation "hastened the patient's demise."

Today, Jim Cox, the head of M.D. Anderson's radiation oncology division, defends the study. He says it was almost certainly done for treatment purposes, and not just to help the air force. "Back then," Cox says, "radiologists either held the hand of patients" with terminal cancer "or they became therapeutic interventionists who tried to do something." Gilbert Fletcher was the latter type: "He was a very creative radiation oncologist constantly looking for new treatments for cancer."

M.D. Anderson's contract is not available, so it is impossible to know whether it was the cancer center or the air force that originated the idea of radiating patients. Cox thinks the military piggybacked onto an already planned Fletcher project. "Fletcher's studies were therapeutic," Cox insists. "He was trying to treat his patients' cancer."

But Cox's theory is contradicted by Fletcher's résumé, which is archived at Baylor and is as thick as a magazine. The résumé stretches for pages, listing scores of articles Fletcher published about his cancer research. But there is no mention of any follow-up study about what happened to the people irradiated under military contract. Fletcher and his colleagues published data about what happened to these patients right after the experiment; for instance, how much they vomited and how far their white blood cell counts dropped. But no articles are listed about how the radiation affected them in the following months or years.

Nor did the study have a control group -- a sample of cancer patients who did not receive total body irradiation -- even though such groups are required in studies of experimental treatments. Even without a control group, though, the study concluded that there was "no evidence to suggest that whole-body irradiation has influenced survival in any way." Nor was there evidence of change in the progress of the patients' cancers.

Perhaps the most ominous aspect of the M.D. Anderson study was the presence of co-researcher Herbert Gerstner. His boss, Hubertus Strughold, sent him to Houston from the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine to help with the cancer patient study. Gerstner was another Operation Paperclip doctor, smuggled out of Germany in 1949, even though officials knew that he had been a member of Hitler Youth in the 1930s. As journalist and Operation Paperclip researcher Linda Hunt revealed in a Texas Observer article, Gerstner was a Nazi Party member. He also may have participated in atrocities. In Nazi Germany, Gerstner's research specialty was the effects of electricity on human skin. He worked closely with a doctor who regularly dissected brains removed from people killed in German euthanasia centers. Given his ties with torturers and murderers, some of Gerstner's research is highly suspect, for example, a study in which a man's left hand was exposed to extreme heat while his right hand received an electric shock. Was the man a volunteer or a death-camp inmate? Gerstner told the U.S. government that his electricity-and-skin records had been destroyed during the war.

Baylor College of Medicine also did whole-body radiation experiments on scores of cancer patients from 1952 to 1964, under contract with the Air Force Special Weapons Project (which later became the Defense Atomic Support Agency). Baylor did not respond to Houston Pressrequests for comment, so there was no confirmation that cadavers of minorities still dominate its human specimen collection.

The government says it no longer does secret studies on patients and dead people, and corpses of color floating in formaldehyde tanks could be things of the past. But Houston may still have a problem with body snatching.

In 1994 Alton Arnic died of a heart attack while riding a Metro bus. His grieving family went to the funeral home and noticed a jagged scar on his head. Relatives were shocked to learn that the Harris County medical examiner's office had removed part of his brain and offered it to the Transplantation Research Foundation (see "Bitter Harvest," by Steve McVicker, January 25, 1996). Arnic had never signed a donor card, and the medical examiner's office, then headed by Jachimczyk, did not ask his family for permission to take his brain matter. When the family protested, Jachimczyk told them that under Texas law it is legal to harvest body tissue for research, even without family consent. He was right.

When a person dies, state law allows the medical examiner's office to determine that it is unlikely that the body will be identified or a relative notified within four hours of the death. When that's the situation, morgue workers can legally remove anything, from bones to brain matter, without approval from next of kin.

U. Lawrence Boze, the lawyer for the Arnic family, planned to challenge the constitutionality of the statute in a suit against the medical examiner's office and the Transplantation Research Foundation. But a visiting judge ruled they could not be sued. Boze believes black cadavers -- Arnic was African-American -- have historically provided the county's main harvest for tissue and organs. Boze knows of a case where an African-American woman suffering from appendicitis ended up at a funeral home with postmortem stitches nowhere near her appendix.

Houston's unresolved legacy of body snatching poses dicey issues. Many ethicists note that harvesting or preserving unclaimed bodies is unacceptable because it violates the tenets of several religions, from the beliefs of Native Americans to Orthodox Judaism.

Ironically, though, the issue is also marked by deep concern, even valor. The experiments at M.D. Anderson and Baylor contributed to a body of information about flying conditions that would later help the United States put astronauts on the moon and keep its soldiers safe. Project Sunshine's results were yet more dramatic.

"In 1957," Sunshine researcher Laurence Kulp recalled recently, "Willard Libby testified before Congress that children were absorbing strontium 90 at an alarming rate and that their bone radioactivity levels might rise to dangerous levels. Our tests on stillborns and children were the basis on which the nations of the world agreed not to do any more atomic testing in the atmosphere. Our data helped lead to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963."

"Did Project Sunshine raise moral or ethical issues?" Kulp asks rhetorically. "People today don't understand. What we did was purely humanitarian."

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