1953–1957: Uranium, boron neutron experimental injections at MGH

1953–1957: Oak Ridge-sponsored experiment injected uranium into eleven patients at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston. (ACHRE staff report)

Dr. William Sweet, chief of Neurosurgery at Harvard’s MGH conducted numerous unethical experiments on terminally ill patients. Some of the experiments were conducted under a government shield of secrecy: for example, Sweet experimented on eleven patients whom he injected with uranium to test its viability as chemotherapy against brain tumors; (Moreno 2001) he also conducted both brain electrode implant experiments. In his 1995 testimony to the ACHRE Advisory Committee, Dr. Sweet claimed that all the subjects gave informed consent. However, one of the subjects was injected with uranium when he arrived at the hospital unconscious and he died without ever regaining consciousness or being identified.

1961-62: The “Boston Project” involved an experiment on 14 patients testing boron-neutron-capture therapy (BNCT).
The experiment was run jointly by MGH and the Health Physics Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The idea was to destroy tumors by injecting them with boron and exposing the chemical to a beam of neutrons, but the treatment was found to also kill healthy brain tissue and blood vessels. Autopsies on 14 patients who were treated with BNCT at those institutions showed that 10 of them, including George Heinrich and Eileen Sienkewicz, died of complications from the experimental treatment.

A medical malpractice lawsuit was filed in New York (1995) for the deaths of George Heinrich and Eileen Sienkewicz, two of the MGH patients who died. The suit claimed that Dr. William Sweet misled Heinrich and Sienkewicz to believe there was a good chance the treatment, which was painful, would succeed, according to Heinrich’ s wife, Evelyn Heinrich, and Sienkewicz’ son, Henry M. Sienkewicz.

The lawsuit cites Dr. Victor Bond, head of the medical department at Brookhaven, who stated in a 1982 interview: “The early experiences was very unfortunate…Then they went beyond that. It wasn’t until long after it became evident it wasn’t working.”

The suit estimated that 75 patients underwent the boron neutron treatment in Massachusetts or New York, and 66 others received injections to their tumors, but were not exposed to neutron beams. The suit maintains that none of the patients was told enough about the procedures to give consent. “It is a monstrous crime that Dr. William Sweet did, and I’m glad that he is still living so that he can be exposed, not as great scientist, but as the monster that he is,” Evelyn Heinrich told The Boston Globe. She said her husband wanted to die before Sweet persuaded him to undergo the treatment.

Anthony Roisman, a Washington attorney for Heinrich and Sienkewicz, said Sweet and others treated terminally ill people as if they had no rights. “Their attitude was, these bodies – not these people – are essentially dead. Let’s do some stuff with them that we would never think of doing on a living person,” Roisman said.

The case was transferred to Mass in 1997 and re-tried in 1999. Read one of the most convoluted legal wrongful death and negligence rulings (308 F.3d 48 – Heinrich v. Sweet HH Md) at OpenJurist