STRANGER THAN STRANGELOVE: FLUORIDATED MENTAL INSTITUTIONS.
with Melissa Gallico
In post-WWII America, public health officials conducted secretive experiments with toxic substances like fluoride and radiation on so-called "feebleminded" children housed at state-run mental institutions in Massachusetts.
Ep6 with Melissa Gallico
Stranger than Strangelove: Fluoridated Mental Institutions
In 1954, the president of the Massachusetts Women's Political Club testified at a U.S. congressional hearing that public health officials were conducting secret experiments on fluoride at the Wrentham State School for Feebleminded Children. It took forty years for more of the story to come to life.
Melissa Gallico is a former FBI analyst and military intelligence officer. She is also author of The Hidden Cause of Acne, illustrator of F Is for Fluoride, and host of the #Fpollution podcast, dedicated to exposing the pollution story behind fluoridation. She has a degree in science and technology in international affairs (STIA) from Georgetown University and a master's in international security studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland where she spent a year as a Fulbright scholar to the United Kingdom.
Discussed in this episode:
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This podcast is produced by Gallico Studios, a multimedia effort supported by a community of activists who share the goal of exposing the pollution story behind fluoridation. To join the studio or learn more, visit our website at .
Melissa Gallico: Welcome to #Fpollution podcast. I'm your host, Melissa Gallico, author of The Hidden Cause of Acne: How Toxic Water is Affecting Your Health and What You Can Do About It and F Is for Fluoride: A Feasible Fairytale for Freethinkers 15 and Up.
In the last two episodes, we spoke with two former presidents of the EPA Union of professional employees, about how, starting in the 1980s, union members at EPA headquarters in Washington, DC worked to expose the fraudulent science used to claim fluoridation is safe. In upcoming episodes we will look at some of the other players involved in the pollution story behind fluoridation, including the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia and the American Dental Association.
But with today’s show, I’m launching a little sidebar series called Stranger than Strangelove to document some of the more fascinating angles of the fluoridation scandal that have long been overlooked. The series is dedicated to any of my fellow fluoride activists out there who have ever been called a crazy conspiracy theorist or worse, anti-science, for opposing fluoridation, especially one activist in particular, my friend Jenny Miller, who used the title Stranger than Strangelove for a short play she wrote about fluoridation published in the Santa Rosa Peace and Justice Newsletter during a successful bid to stop local officials from adding fluoride to the public water supply in Sonoma County.
For the first topic in our Stranger than Strangelove series, I thought we should start with the absolutely insane story of fluoridated mental institutions in Massachusetts. This story came to my attention when I was doing some research for episode three and reading through the congressional hearings on fluoridation in the 1950s. One of the witnesses called to testify against fluoridation in the 1954 hearing was a woman named Florence Birmingham, the president of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Club in Boston. She was also the sister of Leo Birmingham, a prominent figure in state politics who served as the democratic floor leader of the Massachusetts House of Representatives for a decade in the 1930s.
In her testimony, Ms. Birmingham described the Women’s Political Club as a non-partisan, nonsectarian organization representing approximately 50,000 women in the state. The mission of the organization—which was over 30 years old at the time of the hearing—was to teach women the need for good government and to educate them on how best to use their political power. The club had been fighting against fluoridation for several years and wanted their official position recorded in the congressional record.
Along with a written statement detailing why the club opposed fluoridation for moral and scientific reasons, Birmingham testified about her personal concerns over fluoridation involving her work as a trustee on the board of a state-run institution called the Wrentham State School for Feebleminded Children.
While states like New York and Michigan were studying the effects of fluoridation in highly publicized city-wide trials, public health officials in Massachusetts took a different approach. Cloaked in secrecy, they quietly started an experiment of their own involving three state-run institutions for children with supposed mental disabilities. At the direction of state public health officials, schools in Wrentham and Belchertown began adding sodium fluoride to their water supplies, while the state school in Fernald, the poster child for the American eugenics movement in the 1920s, served as the control.
State officials tried their best to keep the experiment under wraps. Dr. William Wellock, the state dental director, even travelled to Wrentham to warn school administrators in person that there was to be no publicity about the program. Even the board of trustees didn’t know about it until a local doctor who opposed the experiment gave Birmingham a copy of an official report published by the state. She was already concerned about fluoridation after reading a technical report published in 1938 by researchers at the University of New Mexico entitled, “A study of the occurrence of fluorine in the drinking water of New Mexico, and the menace of fluorine to health.” If you want to view this report for yourself, along with the official congressional record from the 1954 hearing, as usual, I’ll link to all the references in the show notes at Fpollution.com.
When Florence Birmingham learned that fluoride was being added to the water supply at the Wrentham school she was entrusted to oversee, she brought up her concerns about fluoridation with the other trustees and they appointed her to gather more information on the program. Despite a state law that guaranteed trustees free access to all books, records, and accounts pertaining to their respective institutions, she was unable to learn any further details of the fluoridation experiment that was being conducted by state officials at Wrentham. When she wrote to Dr. Wellock, the state dental director, to ask why of all places a school for feebleminded children should be chosen for such an experiment, he told her the report in question, like so many other key documents, was out of print.
But public health officials weren’t the only ones with inside knowledge of the program. Employees at Wrentham formed union 396 in the Congress of Industrial Organizations and publicly protested the experimental fluoridation program at the school. They loudly objected to being used as guinea pigs of the state. They rejected the wild claims of fluoride’s benefits and blind denials of its toxicity. They pointed out the lack of consent from school administrators, let alone the employees. And they were especially concerned about the method used to dispense fluoride into the water. According to the union president, every employee at the school knew that sodium fluoride (a common rat poison) was added to the water by a young male patient who served as an assistant to the electrician. The boy knew the chemicals were toxic. The employees claimed he had made threats saying things like, “your life is in my hands now.”
The board of trustees voted to stop the fluoridation experiment at Wrentham, but to Birmingham’s surprise, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health responded in typical nonsensical government-style by simply claiming their experiment was not an experiment and theretofore must continue despite the board’s vote to end it.
Florence Birmingham’s testimony in front of the United States Congress about secretive experiments performed on children at state-run institutions in Massachusetts was recorded in the congressional record in 1954. Yet these experiments didn’t come under scrutiny until four decades later when a librarian at one of the institutions discovered an old ledger that revealed fluoridation wasn’t the only experiment that was conducted at Massachusetts state schools on so-called mentally impaired children.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the same time period as the fluoridation experiment, a professor of nutrition at MIT named Robert Harris was leading a series of studies on dozens of boys at Fernald. They were recruited to join a “science club” through offers of gifts like Mickey Mouse watches, field trips to see the Boston Red Sox, and a free daily breakfast courtesy of Quaker Oats. Neither the boys nor their parents, if they had them, were informed that the Quaker oatmeal they received each morning was laced with radioactive tracers. Some of the children, who ranged in age from 10 to 17 years old, received injections of radioactive calcium directly.
When the experiments came to light in the 1990s, Massachusetts held a state panel which concluded, not surprisingly, that their experiments were a violation of human rights but had no discernible effect on the children’s health. President Clinton apologized for the federal government’s role but again, not surprisingly, his task force decided the victims did not deserve any compensation.
MIT, however, did not get off quite as easy. In 1995, the Fernald victims filed a class-action lawsuit which was settled out of court for $1.85 million. In a press release, MIT maintained their researchers acted properly under existing standards and the suit was only settled to avoid the expense of drawn out litigation.
But the scandal left a permanent stain on MIT’s reputation as one of America’s most elite academic institutions when the university’s research director, Dr. Bertran Brill, grudgingly tried to sidestep responsibility in a congressional hearing forty years after the experiments occurred. He tried to argue, unsuccessfully, that the children at the state-school were used for the experiment simply because they ate more cereal than students at private schools. He also failed to convince anyone that leaving the information about the radioactive breakfast cereal off the permission form for the science club was an honest oversight at the time. Brill claimed that in the late 1940s, parents would have readily agreed to exposing their children to radioactive breakfast cereal each morning because “there was so much excitement about the peaceful avenue and everything that was going to be derived from the use of these twinkling things.” Representative Edward Markey from Massachusetts pointed out that MIT would have likely had a hard time getting a more forthcoming permission form signed by parents who had just witnessed the horrific aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And if this story doesn’t already have enough crazy in it for you, here are a few more twists.
The experiments on orphaned and vulnerable children in Massachusetts were part of a much larger clandestine effort by the U.S. federal government to study the health effects of toxic elements like fluoride, plutonium, and radioactive particles used by the military industrial complex during World War II. Thousands of people at hospitals, military bases, and city centers throughout the country were intentionally exposed to hazardous compounds without their knowledge or consent.
And here’s one I didn’t see coming. Robert Harris, the professor of nutrition who conducted the radiation experiments on children at MIT testified against public water fluoridation in the 1952 congressional hearings, two years before Florence Birmingham.
And finally, the so-called “feebleminded” boys used for the experiments in Massachusetts were mostly just regular kids with average intelligence who were poor or neglected and abandoned by their parents. Not that it makes the experiments in any way less wrong, but the fact that the people in charge couldn’t even get that right just adds to the absurdity.
I know hearing these true stories about the dark history of fluoridation and our government’s role in it can be a little much. And that’s as it should be. I want you to be riled up enough to sign my petition to end fluoridation.. Or to share this podcast with your friends. Or join my production studio on Patreon so we can produce more episodes like this one. But I don’t want you to feel so overwhelmed that you think it’s not even worth trying to change things. So before we bring this episode to a close, I thought I would try to help put it all in perspective by sharing some words of wisdom from Fred Boyce.
Fred was one of the boys used in the human radiation experiments at the Fernald State School. Of course he didn’t find out about that until 40 years later when he heard about it on the news.
Fred’s father committed suicide before he was born and the state took him into custody from his alcoholic mother when he was just 8 months old. After a few years in various foster homes, Fred scored low marks on an IQ test that has long since been discredited and he was stamped with the clinical diagnosis of “moron.” That is when he was admitted to the state institution at Fernald.
Fred’s life at Fernald was, in his own words, a nightmare. But joining the science club was an escape. It made him feel special to be receiving attention from such elite men of medicine. Years later, Fred admitted he daydreamed the visiting doctors would recognize he didn’t belong in an institution and would somehow help him gain his freedom.
But it turns out Fred didn’t need their help. At 20 years old, he was released by the state when he and dozens of other young men were deemed too rebellious to be held at the school. While many of his cohorts succumbed to drugs and alcohol or a life of crime, Fred found a job at a traveling carnival where he worked for the next 43 years at a ring-toss booth he towed from town to town with a hitch on his car. He died in 2006 from colon cancer. He was 65 years old.
The most fascinating part of Fred’s life story wasn’t his tragic childhood but the way he responded to it. The state school never taught Fred how to read or write so he hired a tutor and soon his bedside table was filled with poetry books and Stephen Hawking’s musings on the universe. He saved enough money to buy a house. And while his marriage didn’t last long, he remained close to his ex-wife who named him the godfather of her five children. As the driving force behind the lawsuit against MIT, Fred helped as many former schoolmates as he could to receive financial compensation. He was featured in Michael D’Antonio’s book, The State Boys Rebellion, and the movie rights were picked up by Steven Spielberg’s production company.
At an assembly held in his honor after the book was released, Fred Boyce told the audience his secret. “Never give up,” he said. “A lot of times, you’ll think that life is giving you trouble. But in the end, you will find that life is beautiful.”
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*The information presented in this episode reflects the views and opinions of the host and guests invited to appear on the show. It is not intended as medical advice and does not represent the views of the FBI, the U. S. government, or any other individuals or organizations.
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