History and Historiography

Vertus Wellborn Hardiman: Victim of a secret U.S government radiation experiment

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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. The disfigurement of his head was so severe that he always wore hats and wigs to disguise his scalp. Hardiman faced intense criticism from friends who had no idea what he was hiding, and for nearly 80 years he kept his disfigurement secret from the public. Despite his obstacle, he graduated from Lincoln High School with honors in 1941. In 1945, Hardiman traveled to the West Coast in search of a job. After a year, he gained employment with the Los Angeles County General Hospital, where he was known as a loyal employee and was honored for his perfect attendance record. Hardiman died at age 85. The life of Vertus Hardiman is the subject of the documentary “Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed.” released in 2011 that was written and produced by Wilbert Smith and directed by Brett Leonard. These types of experiments led to distrust of the medical community among African Americans. A distrust that lingers on today.

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