Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Book revisits UC radiation experiments

'The Treatment' details writer's efforts to uncover truth

By Peggy O'Farrell pofarrell@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Martha Stephens at her home office.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        No one listened in 1972 when Martha Stephens announced at a press conference that at least 89 men and women, mostly poor and black, had been exposed to lethal doses of radiation in a secret military experiment carried out by researchers at the University of Cincinnati.

        She and the families of those men and women stood up again in 1994. That was when a series of federal hearings brought the Cold War experiments under scrutiny. The world paid a little more attention that time.

        Finally in 1999, there was an indication her voice had been heard. The families who sued the University of Cincinnati, the researchers and the city won a $3.5 million settlement. The university erected a small memorial to the victims of the experiment.

        This month, Dr. Stephens, a novelist and retired English professor from the University of Cincinnati, gets another chance to tell her story as she re-visits the experiments in her new book, The Treatment (Duke University Press; $28.95).

        The book is the latest chapter in the life of a woman compelled to stand up and speak out against injustice. Over the years, she's been active in resolving salary disputes at the university, protesting the death penalty, working to make women more active in Cincinnati politics, helping students protest the Gulf War and visiting Nicaragua to witness free and open elections.

She stands witness

        In many ways, Dr. Stephens views herself as more of a witness to social activism than a participant.

  Age: 65
  Home: Paddock Hills
  Profession: Writer, retired English professor
  Family: Husband, Jerone, three grown children, two grandchildren
  Project: Helped uncover the University of Cincinnati's whole-body radiation experiments in 1972. Just published The Treatment, a memoir of her investigation of the experiments.
        “I'm not one of the heroes,” says the small, silver-haired woman who speaks with a soft south Georgia drawl not much eroded by more than 30 years in Cincinnati. “I'm often standing by writing about the activities of others,”

        The office in her Paddock Hills home is packed with research notes, legal briefs, newspaper clippings and other records from the radiation tests, which took place from 1960 to 1972 at University Hospital, then known as Cincinnati General Hospital.

        Although she is reluctant to acknowledge her own value as an activist, those who know her are not.

        David Logan, 60, of Clifton, met Dr. Stephens in 1969. She was helping to organize the Junior Faculty Association — a group for non-tenured instructors at UC, the occupants of the lower rungs of the academic ladder

        “She does not like to be bullied herself, and will always side with the underdog,” he says.

        Judith Shapiro, a retired social worker and professor of social work at UC, is one of Dr. Stephens' closest friends. Her one-word assessment of Dr. Stephens' character: “determined.”

She digs for truth

        Dr. Stephens started investigating the radiation study in 1971 after reading an article in the Washington Post that said patients at Cincinnati General (now University Hospital) were part of secret military experiments. The Junior Faculty Association took up the cause because many of its members were opposed to America's involvement in Vietnam and were distressed to learn theuniversity might be working with the military.

        Dr. Stephens began pestering administrators at the medical school for information about the radiation experiments. The more she learned, the more frightened she became. The more frightened, the more she dug.

        She spent much of 1971 and 1972 digging. She discovered the aim of the secret study was to determine the effect full-body radiation exposure, such as from a nuclear blast, would have on soldiers in combat. But the cancer patients who were subjected to the experiment were not told they were being exposed to deadly doses of radiation. Their doctors told them they were being treated to relieve the pain of their cancers.

        “As a person teaching at a public university, I wanted to earn my pay. I felt the citizens of the state who were paying my salary wanted me to defend their interest against what was happening on my campus,” she says. “If Ohio citizens were being abused on my campus, I needed to make it known and not wait for outsiders to tell us we were not treating people right.”

        The faculty association called a press conference in 1972 to release the report they'd put together, but only a few reporters showed up. A few lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, were calling for more investigation. But there was little interest locally in the story.

        Disappointed and disillusioned, Dr. Stephens and her colleagues got on with their lives.

Visit to Nicaragua

        In 1984, her husband, Jerone, who recently retired from the political science faculty at Ball State University, went to Nicaragua as an election observer. Her son, Daniel, worked in Nicaragua as a member of Witness for Peace. And Dr. Stephens visited the country in 1990 as an election observer.

        “I lived with a family in a low-income neighborhood for about a month and went to a little Spanish school. I learned a whole lot and came home and wrote about it,” she says.

        She also went on to write for several small newspapers and journals about the causes she has been involved in.

        Then in 1994, she was shocked when interest in the radiation experiments was resurrected as the Department of Energy began investigating Cold War experiments in Cincinnati and elsewhere.

        “I had no idea that story would ever come around again. I thought it was put to rest for all time,” Mr. Logan says.

        Federal hearings followed. The families of the victims organized and filed suit. The suit was resolved in 1999 after a long, bitter court battle.

        In 1998, Dr. Stephens retired because of advanced dry eye disease, which causes loss of sight.

        She misses the classroom and the energy that came from working with students. And she misses the literature she taught, works with strong social themes by writers such as Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck.

        Her failing vision makes writing more than a challenge: She needs a special magnifying screen to read and to write, and relied on the help of family and friends when compiling materials for The Treatment.

Her own story

        The Treatment is written in the first person, a kind of a memoir of Dr. Stephens' investigation of the radiation experiments. Her horror at the scope and outcome of the experiments is evident, as is her empathy for the victims and their families.

        She feels particularly close to Maude Jacobs, a single mother with three young daughters. She was 49 when she died in 1964 after receiving her “treatment” for breast cancer that had apparently spread to her bones.

        “We know a lot about her,” Dr. Stephens says. “She called herself a taxi to get to the hospital. She was well the day she was irradiated and 25 days later she was dead. ... Her blood count had dropped to nothing, and that's the classic symptom of radiation poisoning.”

        Many of the experiment victims would have been called the working poor today. Many were black. And while they all had cancer, most were still well enough to care for themselves and their families, work and get to their doctors' appointments by themselves, Dr. Stephens says.

        The victims' families were not ecstatic with the settlement of the case. Neither was Dr. Stephens.

        “Martha has a very strong sense of what she considers justice,” says Mrs. Shapiro.

        While Dr. Stephens is vehemently opposed to the death penalty and feels the nation's justice system should be reformed, she thinks prison “wouldn't have been out of order” for the General Hospital researchers. None of them lost their licenses to practice medicine; none went to jail.

        She likens the Cincinnati experiments to Nazi atrocities.

        In trying to defend their medical experimentation on Jews and other prisoners during World War II, the Nazis claimed they were trying to gain knowledge to protect their own troops by studying diseases and injuries they would suffer in battle, Dr. Stephens says.

        “That's the same defense that we've heard here in Cincinnati,” she says.

At work on fifth book

               The Treatment is the fourth book she's published. The three previous include two novels and a textbook about Southern writer Flannery O'Connor.

        She's working now on her fifth book, another novel. The plot revolves around a university professor trying to determine whether she's been a success in her academic and activism efforts.

        If it sounds autobiographical, it should. Dr. Stephens is still wrestling with that question about her own life and work.

        “I don't know,” she says. It's hard not to be disillusioned by so little apparent progress after so many years of protesting, gathering signatures and carrying signs, Dr. Stephens says. But the poor, minorities and women are still discriminated against. The death penalty is still the law of the land, and free elections are still a hazardous process in many nations.

        “We hoped for an entirely different outcome, and we keep struggling. But we see little that is being accomplished,” she says. “Maybe the struggle is the main thing.”

        Martha Stephens will sign The Treatment at 2 p.m. April 20 at the Kenwood Barnes & Noble store, 7800 Montgomery Road.


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