A "little bit of madness" descended on Helen W. Samuels, the Institute Archivist, last week as journalists and MIT personnel sought to learn more about experiments using radioactive material conducted nearly a half century ago.
The search of the historical records was continuing this week in an effort to bring forth as much relevant information as possible about the experiments, some of which were nutritional studies involving retarded teenage boys at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham. The nutritional studies were published in the Journal of Nutrition in 1950, 1954, and 1956.
A central question had to do with whether the participants, or their guardians, had given informed consent for the experiments. This was still not completely clear this week; the media reported that some letters were sent to parents and guardians, but may not have mentioned the use of radioactive isotopes.
For the past 25 years, since 1968, the federal government has required the institution conducting the research to be responsible for getting the consent of human subjects of medical research. Prior to that time, the practice was that the medical doctor or official in charge of the patients or subjects was the person who was responsible for getting consent.
At MIT, since the 1970s, human radiation experiments have had to be approved by at least two independent review boards at MIT (see story on page 7).
Most of the records about these studies (except for confidential patient information) have been available to the public through the MIT Archives since the early 1980s, Ms. Samuels said.
Ms. Samuels said the Institute Archives and Special Collections were fulfilling their true function, "to preserve the historical record so MIT can understand itself. and its impact as an institution on the larger society."
The interest in the MIT research was part of a broader national story concerning government-supported radiation experiments using human subjects following World War II.
A front-page story in the Boston Globe on Sunday, Dec. 26, about the Fernald School studies, which were carried out by MIT and Harvard researchers, followed reports that US Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary had ordered a federal review of human radiation experiments.
The possibility of government compensation was raised. Ms. O'Leary told the New York Times on Dec. 28, "If they can prove there was no consent for the experimentation and harm resulted from the experiments, they or members of their families are going to want something more a than a formal apology."
Following the Globe article, other reporters and members of the public called MIT, Harvard and the Fernald School for more information. At the direction of President Charles M. Vest, MIT began a search of its records.
The continuing review at MIT is being supervised by Professor J. David Litster, Vice President and Dean of Research. The state Department of Mental Retardation also is conducting an investigation of research done at their schools and facilities.
The nutritional research reviewed to date involves amounts of radioactivity that are within the limits permissible even under today's more stringent regulations. The current limit for occupational or research exposure for those under 18 years of age is 500 millirems per year (one-tenth of the adult occupational limit which is now 5,000 millirems per year). The limit at the time of the experiment for children was 1500 millirems.
The nutrition studies at Fernald, which took place between 1946 and 1956, involved 62 youths in all. In one case, in which trace elements were used to track iron absorption while eating cereal, 17 boys-ages 12 to 17-ate seven breakfasts spread out over 10 months, according to the Journal of Nutrition articles.
The average exposure in the study was 172 millirems, about one-third of the 1994 limit. The range was 127 millirems for the heaviest youth to 245 millirems for the lightest youth. The research showed that iron supplements should be taken between meals.
Three later studies, involving 45 youths ages 10-16 used radioactive calcium to track calcium absorption. The exposure ranged from 4 to 11 millirems, or 1 percent to 2 percent of today's maximum.
A version of this article appeared in the January 5, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 18).