Vertus Wellborn Hardiman was the victim of an unethical secret U.S government radiation experiment in 1928. Hardiman was born on March 9, 1922 in Lyles Station, Ind., known as one of the earliest Negro settlements in the United States. When Hardiman was five years old, he was one of nine children that took part in a terrifying medical experiment, where he and other children were severely irradiated during a medical experiment conducted at the local county hospital. To get parental consent the experiment was misrepresented as a new therapy for the scalp fungus known as ringworm.
The radiation of the skull led to immediate symptoms but also to a severe progressive necrosis of the bone all through his life. At the time, many human radiation experiments were conducted on African Americans and were funded by the United States Department of Defense and United States Atomic Energy Commission. Experiments included feeding radioactive food to disabled children, inserting radium rods into school children and injecting pregnant women and babies with radioactive chemicals. The studies were classified until 1986, when they were released in the report entitled “America Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments.” The treatment on Hardiman’s skull left him with progressive necrosis of the scalp throughout the rest of his life. These types of experiments led to distrust of the medical community among African Americans that lingers on today.
Editor’s note: contributed by Charmaine Simpson, Black History Studies
Read the expanded report below from STAT, a publication reporting from the frontiers of health and medicine.
“In this final episode of Color Code, we speak with Smith about his dear friend Vertus and the documentary they made more than a decade ago, “Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed.” We also hear from Linda Villarosa, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine and author of “Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation.” She tells us about the story of the Relf sisters, who were sterilized without their consent in 1973, and shares her thoughts on the medical mistreatment of Black people like Vertus Hardiman.”