Undergraduate Writing Series
Radiation, Race, and Recognition

Radiation, Race, and Recognition

Divya Kumar

One Saturday in June 2000, a small crowd gathered on the grounds of the University of Cincinnati (UC) Medical Center. They congregated around a plaque that had been placed a few months prior as a ceremonial end to years of litigation. Among the crowd was the case’s presiding judge, Sandra Beckwith of the Southern District of Ohio. She stood, holding a candle, looking at the plaque that bore the words: “In Memoriam Cancer Patients Radiation Effects Study, 1960–1972.”[1] Beneath this was a list of seventy names. These names commemorated the patients who were irradiated as part of a UC study funded by the Department of Defense (DOD). But even in this moment of commemoration and closure, this retroactive attempt at justice was incomplete.

To understand how that plaque came to be, it’s necessary to go back to 1960, when these experiments began under the leadership of UC physician Dr. Eugene Saenger. He and his colleagues received DOD funding to study the effects of whole-body radiation with the hopes of developing a blood or urine test to detect radiation exposure in the event of nuclear war.[2] But their subjects of choice were cancer patients, who were deceived and misled into participating in the study under the guise of treatment. The subjects were recruited from Cincinnati General Hospital, one of the few hospitals available for Black and low-income Cincinnatians.[3] As a result, more than 60% of the patients were Black, despite the fact that they made up only 26% of the city’s population at the time. The vast majority of the study’s subjects were lower or working class.[4]

Eight story building with big glass windows all along the front, and a concrete wing to the right of the image
CARE/Crawley building at the University of Cincinnati Medical Campus (Adam Sofen/Flickr)

For over a decade, the subjects were not fully informed of the risks and consequences of this study. For the first five years, no written consent forms were used.[5] But even after those forms were implemented, the patients were not warned of the dangers, which ranged from mild side effects like nausea to a risk of death.[6] Many of these patients suffered excruciating misery without any palliative care, so as not to “compromise” the study itself.[7] But even after dozens of irradiations, the intended urine test was never developed.[8] It’s unclear why that goal was never met, in part because the researchers published very little about their findings. But in the final years of the experiments, their purpose broadened, with the alleged goals of offering potential palliative care and studying the effects of radiation on the body.[9]

The experiments finally came to an end in early 1972, when UC English professor Martha Stephens drew attention to them as a whistleblower.[10] After Stephens exposed the study, physicians, university administrators, and politicians reached an agreement: the study would be suspended, but it would also be concealed. No investigations would be conducted, and the truth would not be told, not even to the subjects.[11]

Despite Stephens’s bravery in truth-telling, the experiments were swept under the rug for more than twenty years. In the 1990s, a number of similar experiments involving military funding and the testing of dangerous chemicals were also exposed, renewing and strengthening public interest in this now recent history.[12] Because of the secretive nature of the experiments, concealed identities of the patients, and the lack of informed consent, many of the patients’ family members had no idea their loved ones had undergone such procedures. Thus a campaign to identify and inform the families began with the support of Stephens and local Cincinnati papers.[13] Together, a growing coalition of family members filed a series of federal lawsuits against the university and the physicians.[14]

The aforementioned memorial came into existence because of these lawsuits. In 1995, Judge Beckwith authored an opinion denying the physicians’ motion to receive qualified immunity, forcing them to proceed through the case as individual defendants. In this opinion, she swiftly condemned the actions of the researchers, comparing their actions to those of Nazi scientists who were sanctioned by the Nuremberg Code. It became clear that a settlement would be necessary.[15] As settlement talks began, the discussion of a plaque arose.[16]

The debate surrounding the plaque was significant. The defendants opposed such an idea, as they feared it would tarnish their reputations. What the parties ultimately agreed upon was a simple square, with a list of seventy names and no explanation of who these people were or why the plaque was there.[17] Unfortunately, this list of names was actually incomplete. Because the patients’ identities were obscured, it took several years to identify everyone, and only those patients who had a family member join the lawsuit were included on the plaque.[18] The exact number of missing names is unclear but appears to be near thirty. The vast majority of missing names are Black subjects of the study.

Since its creation, massive construction has occurred and the abysmal plaque has been moved and obscured from view.[19] At the time of this writing, it sits in storage due to more construction. But for the past twenty years, it has been tucked away behind a parking garage and left to fall into the cracks of history just as the story it purports to represent fades as well. At certain points, it has been completely overgrown by bushes and physically impossible to see.[20] This lackluster plaque is a physical manifestation of this story’s fading place in history.

Bob Newman, one of the attorneys who represented the families throughout the lawsuit, often says that the true memorial to this history is Judge Beckwith’s landmark 1995 opinion. He calls it a “legal monument” that would stare down anyone else who would dare to do anything like this ever again.[21] And I don’t disagree. The legal battle and settlement are crucial attempts at retroactive justice. But this plaque, and everything it stands for, demonstrate that the work here isn’t done. Ask anyone on UC’s campus about the radiation experiments and chances are they will have no idea what you’re talking about – in part because plenty of people have never seen the actual memorial. But beyond that, the hidden and incomplete nature of the plaque is emblematic of the hidden and incomplete handling of this history.

The point of a memorial is to prevent something from being forgotten. But this plaque resulted from a negotiation created to placate rather than honor. Each name on the plaque, as well as the missing names, holds a story of a life and a family permanently altered by the course of these experiments. Each person, already vulnerable due to illness, socioeconomic status, and race, has been permanently harmed not only in their life but in their memory. The bare minimum we can do is take the time to continue understanding and repairing the damage done by the radiation experiments. The bare minimum would be a proper plaque and resources to teach the community about what happened. It’s long overdue that the university and the campus community take responsibility and ensure the remembrance of this history before it is forgotten forever.


  1. Janice Morse, “Radiation Tests: Mourning the Horror and Celebrating a Court Battle,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 18, 2000.
  2. Tim Bonfield and Steve Bennish, “Paper Trail Reveals Roots of Testing,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 13, 1994.
  3. Martha Stephens, The Treatment: The Story of Those Who Died in the Cincinnati Radiation Tests (Duke University Press, 2002), 186, 220.
  4. Stephens, The Treatment, 186.
  5. Ibid, 21.
  6. Ibid, 27.
  7. Ibid, 108.
  8. Bonfield and Bennish, “Paper Trail Reveals Roots of Testing.”
  9. David Egilman, “A Little Too Much of the Buchenwald Touch? Military Radiation Research at the University of Cincinnati, 1960–1972,” Accountability in Research 6, (1998): 63–102.
  10. Stephens, The Treatment, 18–25.
  11. Ibid, 26–28.
  12. Ibid, 26–29.
  13. Ibid, 36–55.
  14. “General Hospital Radiation Experiments: A Chronology,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 11, 1994.
  15. Stephens, The Treatment, 213–22.
  16. Bob Newman, Interview with Author, March 14, 2021.
  17. Stephens, The Treatment, 233.
  18. Bob Newman, Interview with Author, March 14, 2021.
  19. Tim Bonfield, “Part of Hospital Demolished,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 11, 2001.
  20. Kathrine Nero, “Out-of-the-way Memorial Remembers Cincinnati Patients Who Died in Radiation Testing,” WCPO, July 3, 2017, YouTube Video, 2:04, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t85tiyZyC_E.
  21. Bob Newman, Interview with Author, March 14, 2021.

Featured image caption: Plaque on the University of Cincinnati Medical Campus. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Divya is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Cincinnati studying history. Outside of class, she competes on the UC Mock Trial team and also works in the Clerk's Office for the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

2 thoughts on “Radiation, Race, and Recognition

    • Author gravatar

      Wow shocking !
      Thanks for sharing this

    • Author gravatar

      This interests me for multiple reasons — among them, having had a friend die after a bone marrow transplant that was supposed to “cure” her breast cancer, and having experienced radiation treatment for breast cancer myself. It is my impression that bone marrow transplants have been in a sense experimental treatment that was not, overall, a success, and I don’t think that’s been adequately recognized. Also, as I now give support to other women receiving breast cancer treatment, I often find myself wondering whether in some important ways, all of the regimens offered are still experimental. As you prepare for radiation treatment after breast cancer surgery, nobody says “we are about to burn and damage the tissues through the depth of your body, from chest to back.” Including heart and lungs. Desperation opens people to severe treatments; my concern is that the damage from such treatments is not being faced or factored into the calculus of how best to extend (a good) life.

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