Lyles Station in Gibson County at the tip of southwestern Indiana had been an important way station on the legendary “Underground Railroad,” the informal network of safe houses and people formed to assist fugitive slaves in their flight to Canada and freedom; it continued to be a prosperous community for the newly emancipated after the Civil War.
In 1927, the parents of 10 children at a local elementary school in this segregated hamlet were approached by local healthcare officials to be treated for dermatophytosis, a fungal infection commonly called by the misleading label of “ringworm.”
This condition flourishes in warm and moist environs, and not through the introduction of parasitic worms, as its name might suggest. The medical authorities in this particular instance misled the local citizenry as well, because instead of receiving a carefully calibrated treatment, the children were subjected to massive dosages of radiation and used as human guinea pigs in an attempt to perfect radiation therapy, which was in the experimental stage; among the child victims was 5-year-old Vertus Hardiman. What transpired next would permanently alter his life and likely would have ruined a man of weaker constitution.
Following the discovery of radiation, scientists pushed to unearth the potential for this process, which proved to be a contradictory advance for mankind. Its military applications, of course, were years away from fruition, but medical benefits loomed in the researchers’ imaginations. In a nutshell, radiation therapy involves killing cancerous tissue along with tissue that is healthy. The cancerous tissue theoretically will not grow back, but the healthy cells will regenerate.
With this in mind, it is possible that the exercise done on the Lyles Station children to determine how much of the superficial tissue (skin and bone) on the subject’s craniums could be removed via radiation without impacting the epithelial tissue (skin) on the subject’s scalp coule be removed via radiation without impacting the skin and killing the microorganisms. In Hardiman’s case, the technicians must have given him an exceptionally large dose, because he heard one exclaim from behind the lead partition separating them from him, “Oh my God, I’ve given him too much!”
On the bus transporting the children away from the hospital, pandemonium reigned, as all the kids engaged in an orgy of vomiting all the way home. All also retained cranial scars from the ordeal, but Hardiman’s were dramatically worse, and as a result he experienced a slow dissolving of the bone matter of his skull for the rest of his life. The ensuing deformed head and gapping hole at its top were disguised by a succession of hats, toupees, and wigs. Every day of his life an hour was spent changing bandages and dressing the wound.
Hardiman’s Christian faith sustained him in the aftermath, and enabled him to lead a life of accomplishment by any standards as he moved west to California and became a Pasadena homeowner and eventually amassed a personal fortune in excess of $8 million.
Hardiman’s close friendship with fellow parishioner Wilbert Smith, Ph.D., at First AME Church eventually compelled him to disclose his terrible secret and chronicle this shameful chapter of American history in a documentary with the title “Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed.” Narrated by noted actor Dennis Haysbert, it was nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Award at this year’s Pan African Film Festival. Hardiman died on June 1, 2007.
Inquiries were made to the health department in Gibson County, Ind., but officials said their documentation did not go back that far, and the archives they did have contained records primarily of birth and death. Preliminary talks have begun with curators from the Smithsonian Institution for verification of Lyles Station’s status as one of the oldest African American settlements in existence, and presumably the story of the radiation experiments of 1927 will be included, should those efforts prove to be successful.
One cannot help but be repulsed by the cruelty of such procedures, especially their application to young children, but this was not an isolated case. Similar research occurred in 1951 on a much larger scale has been uncovered in the then-fledgling state of Israel. Like the Lyles Station incident, where all the affected children were Black, racial overtones abounded since fair-skinned Ashkenazi Jews of European origin administered radiation to upwards of 100,000 Sephardic Jewish children who were refugees from Morocco.
The Ashkenazis served as proxies for Robert Oppenheimer, his Manhattan Project, and the U.S. government, who underwrote the program because they were eager to utilize a convenient pool of guinea pigs for further testing in the wake of their successful atomic bombings at the close of World War II. Sephardic Jews differ visually from their Ashkenazi brethren by virtue of their darker, olive skin tone.
Still more episodes of radiation bombardment were conducted throughout the 1960s at what is now the University of Cincinnati on some 90 working-class citizens, of which two-thirds were Black. During the Clinton Administration these and other Cold War experiment programs were reviewed to determine restitution suitability and the need for formal apologies.
As pointed out in the situation with Vertus Hardiman and his compatriots, amends and atonement are complicated by the matter of parental consent forms that were signed. But Smith and others involved with “A Hole in the Head” are optimistic that increased publicity will finally garner a measure of justice for this immoral travesty of long ago.