Radioactive Cereals

Fernald State School, where the boys lived when they were part of MIT's Science Club. Wikimedia Commons
Fernald State School, where the boys lived when they were part of MIT’s Science Club. Wikimedia Commons


After World War II, governments around the world were keen to explore the long-term repercussion of their new toys: nuclear weapons. Human testing and experimentation would continue all across the world, more often than not, on a variety of unconsenting and ignorant subjects.

In the 1940s, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Quaker Oats conducted a series of experiments involving the consumption of radioactive cereals by children. In particular, the study sought to learn more about the effects of internal radiation exposure, and to develop methods for treating radiation sickness as opposed to external radiation exposure, which had been studied for many years.

People were either compelled to consume radioactive substances or were made subject to it in these studies, which continued throughout the 1950s. The experiments were conducted without the knowledge or consent of the children or their parents, and the results of the studies remain shrouded in controversy today.

For years, boys at Fernald State School were subjected to experiments using radioactive tracers in oatmeal. Flickr
For years, boys at Fernald State School were subjected to experiments using radioactive tracers in oatmeal. Flickr

Background to Eugenics Movement

The concept of eugenics began around 400 BC with the idea of ‘selective breeding’ as a way to improve and maintain specific group populations. By the 19th century, a fringe eugenic theory began to take hold in the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and most European countries.

Eugenicists attempted to alter the human gene pool by excluding groups considered to be inferior and using new technologies such as genetic screening and CRISPR. Individuals with physical or mental disabilities, those who were considered ‘deviants’ and even those from minority groups were deemed “unfit to reproduce” and subsequently underwent forced sterilization.

The eugenics movement became associated with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust during the Nuremberg trials of 1945 and 1946. Many of the defendants claimed there was little difference between the Nazi eugenics programs and the U.S. eugenics programs.

In that regard, the Nazis were right as evidenced by Operation Paperclip. Operation Paperclip was a United Stated intelligence program in which more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, psychiatrists, doctors and basically, anybody who was of importance was shipped to the US to continue their work under the wing of the US government.

Fernald Center, then named a “School for the Feeble Minded ”(c.1900)
Fernald Center, then named a “School for the Feeble Minded ”(c.1900)

The Fernald School

The Fernald State Center was built in 1848 and was conceived as a sanatorium for “feeble-minded” boys. It was originally called Experimental School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children. It later moved to Waltham, Massachusetts, where eventually expanded to comprise 72 buildings on 196 acres of land. At its peak, Fernald School was able to house some 2,500 boys (and girls) with developmental disabilities.

Massachusetts School for the Feeble-minded
Massachusetts School for the Feeble-minded

The School was renamed as Walter E. Fernald in 1925, after his third superintendent, Walter E. Fernald (1859–1924). Fernald was an advocate of eugenics. And under his leadership, the school was viewed as a model educational facility in the field of mental retardation.

The Science Club

The Fernald School was the location of the 1946-53 Harvard-MIT Joint Experiment, which exposed male youths to tracer doses of a radioactive isotope.

A lot of the children were Wards of the State, meaning they had no family themselves and the State was responsible for their well-being. A few of them had families, but the commonality among them was that the vast majority were mentally handicapped or suffered from a variety of mental illnesses that back then were not well understood.

The children were allegedly lured into attending the science club. They were offered extra meals at a time of poverty, as well as parties and trips to Boston Red Sox baseball games. Unbeknownst to them, more than 200 children in Fernald School and several other public schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts, became unwilling participants in a research study led by Harvard-MIT and Quaker Oats.

The children were involuntarily fed grains of oatmeal and milk spiked with radioactive iron and calcium. In another experiment, scientists injected radioactive calcium into the boys directly in an effort to understand what happens to calcium in the bloodstream.

Children at Fernald State School fed Radioactive Cereal by scientist at MIT & Harvard University
Children at Fernald State School were fed Radioactive Cereal by scientists at MIT & Harvard University

The cereals were designed to contain various levels of radioactive substances, including uranium, thorium, cobalt, and strontium. The children were given cereals and instructed to eat them as part of their regular diet. The researchers then monitored the children’s bodies for signs of radiation sickness.

The experiment was conducted over a period of several years, but it is unclear exactly how many children were involved in it given that a lot of the information is still classified to this day. Children as young as two might have been exposed to the experiments.

The children were not informed that they were consuming radioactive substances, and the researchers did not obtain informed consent from the children or their families before conducting the experiment.

MIT never bothered to follow up with the children from Fernald, but MIT made sure that Quaker Oats was very well informed about the findings, and Quaker Oats started using a claim about high iron levels in its advertising for Quaker Oats.

Quaker Oats funded the radiation studies for commercial reasons.
Quaker Oats funded the radiation studies for commercial reasons.

The 1960 Experiments

A similar experiment was conducted in 1961 and throughout the 1960s.

Seventy children at the Wrentham State School, a facility for mentally disabled children in Massachusetts, were given small doses of radioactive iodine by a team of researchers from Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Boston University School of Medicine.

With funding from the Division of Radiologic Health of the U.S. Public Health Service, the scientists conducting this experiment used Wrentham students to test a proposed countermeasure to nuclear fallout. Specifically, the study was meant to determine the amount of nonradioactive iodine that would effectively block the uptake of radioactive iodine that would be released in a nuclear explosion.


Unearthed letters of consent sent to the parents were found during the 1994 Inquiry (see Inquiry below).

The letters refers to a project in which children at the school will receive a special diet “rich” in various cereals, iron, and vitamins and for which “it will be necessary to make some blood tests at stated intervals, similar to those to which our patients are already accustomed, and which will cause no discomfort or change in their physical condition other than possibly improvement.”

Department of Energy: Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments
Dear Parent:

In previous years we have done some examinations in connection with the nutritional department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the purposes of helping to improve the nutrition of our children and to help them in general more efficiently than before.

For the checking up of the children, we occasionally need to take some blood samples, which are then analyzed. The blood samples are taken after one test meal which consists of a special breakfast meal containing a certain amount of calcium. We have asked for volunteers to give a sample of blood once a month for three months, and your son has agreed to volunteer because the boys who belong to the Science Club have many additional privileges. They get a quart of milk daily during that time, and are taken to a baseball game, to the beach and to some outside dinners and they enjoy it greatly.

I hope that you have no objection that your son is voluntarily participating in this study. The first study will start on Monday, June 8th, and if you have not expressed any objections we will assume that your son may participate.

Sincerely yours,
Clemens E. Benda, M.D.
[Fernald] Clinical Director
Malcom J. Farrell, M.D.
[Fernald] Superintendent

The Inquiry

Originally, eight to ten victims filed the lawsuit and created newspaper ads requesting possible participants towards the lawsuit to come forward. Approximately 20 more people joined the lawsuit with the state notifying another 100 people who were allegedly involved in the studies.

In a 1994 Senate Hearing (Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments), it was revealed that scientists at MIT had been giving boys — men today — radioactive in the oatmeal as part of nutrition studies conducted for Quaker Oats. Quaker Oats also gave a small study grant to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 MIT produced radioactive isotopes and had Fernand’s kids eat Quaker Oats with milk and with a radioactive tracer, so that they could detect whether phytate chemicals in oats were interfering with calcium absorption. However, Quaker Oats continued to dispute that it had a significant impact on the Fernald tests.

The defendants claimed that only 74 boys from Fernald School were exposed to a small amount of radiation, between 170 and 330 millirems of radiation, with an average of 230, about equivalent to receiving 30 consecutive chest X-rays.

Typical Radiation Exposure
Typical Radiation Exposure – Source: Priceconomics

 According to the lawsuit, several people got subjected to even more radioactivity than was permitted by regulatory restrictions. The fact that there was radioactivity “in the oatmeal” is not mentioned in the consent form which was distributed.

Reports from the task committee concluded that the students didn’t experience any severe health problems in 1994. However, the Senate Hearing concluded that their civil rights had been infringed. When information regarding the Fernald experiments was first reported in 1994, MIT President Charles Vest issued an apology.

In 1995, President Clinton apologized to the 30 former Fernald students because the Atomic Energy Commission had indirectly sponsored experiments of its own through contracts with MIT’s Centre for Radioactivity.

In 1998, the filing and resolution of this lawsuit took place. MIT and Quaker Oats agreed to pay $1.85 million to former residents of the Fernald School for Higher Learning in Waltham, Mass., who were fed radiation-spiked breakfast cereals during nutrition experiments during the 1940s and 1950s.

The Controversy

The MIT experiments on children have sparked a great deal of controversy over the years. Critics of the study argue that the researchers should have obtained informed consent from the children and their families before conducting the experiment. They also argue that the researchers should have provided the children with information about the potential risks associated with consuming the radioactive cereals.

The MIT experiments involving the consumption of radioactive cereals by children have sparked a great deal of controversy over the years.  Although the study was conducted with the intention of understanding the effects of radiation on the human body, the researchers failed to obtain informed consent from the children or their families before conducting the experiment.

The researchers have also been criticized for their lack of transparency. The results of the study were not released until decades after the experiments were conducted, and some of the documents related to the study remain classified to this day.

You can learn more about the subject by watching the two documentaries below.

State Boys Rebellion
My Uncle Joe

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