In 1994, before the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins was established, Ruth Faden was asked to consult the US Department of Energy (DOE) on reports of government-sponsored radiation-related medical research on citizens without their knowledge. At the time, Faden was a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, teaching medical ethics. Shocked by the accounts of widespread radiation experiments on unknowing, unconsenting citizens, Faden suggested that the DOE needed an independent investigation, and it should not be limited to that department alone.


Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary and President Bill Clinton agreed, and asked Faden to lead the investigation as chair of the White House Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE).  Faden assembled her ideal interdisciplinary staff of historians, clinicians, philosophers, lawyers, and scientists who went on to work together with the committee named by Pres. Clinton for 18 months before issuing its report on October 3, 1995.


On October 5, 2016, Johns Hopkins will host a day-long symposium to consider the committee’s work and its impact in the 20 years since the release of its report. Members of the ACHRE committee and staff will reflect on the seminal report, its impact since 1995 and into the future on topics including the regulation of human-subject research, considerations around remedies for past wrongs, and the use of historical information to make moral judgments about the past.


According to a New York Times story published in 1994 shortly after President Clinton established ACHRE, Faden said the most difficult task for the committee would be deciding what standard of ethics to measure the experiments against. Indeed, she saw in these analyses the potential to “rewrite the history of ethics and research on human subjects in this country.”


The investigation across six cabinet offices included testimony from over 200 public witnesses and tens of thousands of declassified government records.  Among the testimonies was that of Fred Boyce, who was an unwitting research subject at the Walter E. Fernald State School (an institution for children who were wards of the state), in which a group of boys in the “Science Club” were given oatmeal laced with radioactive isotopes in an experiment funded by the federal government in collaboration with Quaker Oats.


Other research subjects included terminal cancer patients and more than 200,000 military personnel, both used to study the effects of exposure to atomic weapons. When The New York Times recently revisited ACHRE in their Retro Report video series, the focus was on these “atomic veterans.”  In other cases of intentional exposures from the 1940s to the 1960s, dangerous radioactive material was simply released into the air.


When President Clinton accepted the ACHRE report and its recommendations in October 1995, he established the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. Successive presidents have continued the practice, ensuring that high level attention to bioethics continues at the federal level.


Faden went on to establish the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics in 1996 and served as its director for 20 years, stepping down from that role in June 2016.   Reflecting on the work of ACHRE in 2000, Faden said “In terms of the accomplishments of the commission, to me, one of the most important was recording history. Like any kind of completing or correcting of the historical record, there’s an inestimable value that you have to attach to knowing that a part of history that was not acknowledged, not preserved, is now protected. . .  It will take time to determine whether we were a footnote in history or whether we had more impact than that.”  Twenty years on from the report’s release, Faden will join her ACHRE colleagues to examine that question.  For more information on the Secrecy, Security, and Science Symposium, visit the Berman Institute website for this event.

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