The Rhoads Not Given: The Tainting of the Cornelius P. Rhoads Memorial Award : Oncology Times

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The Rhoads Not Given

The Tainting of the Cornelius P. Rhoads Memorial Award

Rosenthal, Eric T.

Oncology Times 25(17):p 19-20, September 10, 2003. | DOI: 10.1097/
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In Brief

What happens when an organization learns that one of its long-established, prestigious awards was named for an individual of less-than-sterling reputation? Here's how AACR faced that dilemma.

What happens when an organization learns that one of its long-established, prestigious awards was named for an individual of less-than-sterling reputation?

Does the tarnish end with the renaming of the award—and is the renaming retroactive?—or does it affect past recipients and institutions affiliated with the no-longer-esteemed individual?

How deep does the taint stain—and how does society reconcile the positive accomplishments of the namesake with his alleged heinous deeds when looking backward under the scrutiny of contemporary political correctness?

In a year when the American Association for Cancer Research had to cancel its annual meeting in Toronto because of the SARS scare, the association also had to deal with the embarrassment of having history catch up to modern-day sensibilities.

The issue faced by the AACR was its Cornelius P. Rhoads Memorial Award, first established in 1979 by an anonymous donor who specified it be presented to a young investigator (no older than 40) on “the basis of meritorious achievement in cancer research.”

In an interview with OT in the July 25th issue, Susan B. Horwitz, PhD, AACR's Immediate Past President, referred to the issue, explaining that Dr. Rhoads was a researcher in the 1930s who worked at Rockefeller University and also in Puerto Rico. “Over the years people have expressed concern over a letter he wrote while working in Puerto Rico expressing derogatory racist ideas about the local population,” Dr. Horwitz said.

“The matter came up again this year and was even more controversial,” she continued. “As a result it was decided that Dr. Rhoads' name would no longer be associated with this award, and that it not be given in 2003. It will be renamed, and the annual presentation will be resumed in 2004.”

Article in Science

AACR's decision to rename the award in April prompted an article in Science (4/25/03 issue—2003;300:573–574), “Revisiting a 1930s Scandal, AACR to Rename a Prize,” by Douglas Starr, which recounted much of the controversy surrounding Dr. Rhoads.

The Rhoads case illustrates how various institutions and organizations—both in the last century and today—have handled, and even condoned, scandalous situations relevant to their respective mores, as well as showing how facts and history can be distorted and rewritten.

The Rhoads saga began in 1931 when Rockefeller Institute pathologist Cornelius Packard “Dusty” Rhoads, MD, arrived in Puerto Rico as part of the Commission for the Study of Anemia in Puerto Rico funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

The Commission was studying hookworm-caused anemia and tropical sprue anemia, and Dr. Rhoads was said to have become less than enamored with the tropical conditions and local citizens.

Apparently, one night, the pathologist emerged drunk from a party and found his car vandalized. Upon returning to his laboratory he wrote what was to become the now-infamous letter at the center of the controversy.

Intended as Confidential Letter

The letter was intended as a confidential note to a colleague in Boston. Dr. Rhoads left the document on his desk, and it was discovered the next day by a lab assistant who gave copies to colleagues as well as to Pedro Albizu Campos, head of the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party. Campos, in turn, circulated the letter to newspapers, embassies, the League of Nations, Pan American Union, American Civil Liberties Union, and the Vatican.

What Dr. Rhoads wrote was: “Porto Ricans are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere. What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off eight and transplanting cancer into several more.”

Following the public exposure by Albizu Campos, Time magazine published a story, “Porto Ricochet,” about the incident in February 1932.

According to Susan E. Lederer, PhD, Associate Professor of the History of Medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, the Puerto Rican nationalist charges of a “race extermination plot” conducted under the auspices of the Rockefeller Institute prompted Puerto Rican Governor James R. Beverley to order an official investigation of Dr. Rhoads' claims.

In Porto Ricochet: Joking about Germs, Cancer and Race Extermination in the 1930s, published last December by Oxford University Press American Literary History, Dr. Lederer provides interesting insight into what was happening behind the scenes.

Spin Doctoring

For example, she said in a recent telephone interview, the 1932 Time story and an earlier New York Times article were heavily influenced by none other than one of the founders of modern-day public relations spin-doctoring, Ivy Lee, who had been handling public relations for the Rockefeller family ever since the 1914 Ludlow Massacre when 24 men, women and children were killed during a labor riot at mine owned by the Rockefellers.

Lee had pre-publication access to both the Time and New York Times articles, Dr. Lederer noted, and in both cases, Lee was able to influence sufficient editing and rewriting that the published accounts presented Rhoads' letter as a “joke” that was never intended to be mailed.

Dr. Rhoads maintained that his writings were “a fantastic and playful composition written entirely for my own diversion and intended as a parody on supposed attitudes of some American minds in Porto Rico.”

Time even went so far as to imply that the “ricochet” involved ingratitude by the native Puerto Ricans for what had been a self-sacrificing doctor; the magazine captioned a photo of Dr. Rhoads with “His parody was taken seriously.” The magazine also eliminated the words “and transplanting cancer into several more,” from its published version of the letter.

No Evidence

Neither the investigation ordered by Puerto Rico's governor nor an internal investigation by the Rockefeller Foundation was able to uncover any evidence that Dr. Rhoads had “exterminated” any Puerto Ricans. When Dr. Rhoads returned to New York in December 1931 he was treated cordially by his colleagues and resumed work at Rockefeller Institute, where he remained until 1939 when he left to become Director of Memorial Hospital.

During World War II, he served as chief of the Medical Division of the Chemical Warfare Service in the Army Medical Corps, for which he received the Legion of Merit. He is credited with helping to develop the discipline of cancer chemotherapy and directed research testing nitrogen mustard gas in mice during the 1940s.

While still Director of Memorial, he was also named Director of the new Sloan-Kettering Institute and was praised by Memorial for his “essential role in the evolution of the hospital into a modern medical center.”

In recognition of the opening of the Sloan-Kettering Institute, Dr. Rhoads appeared on the cover of Time in 1949, where he was lauded as a cancer-fighter. According to Dr. Lederer, the 1949 story made no mention of the incidents related to the 1932 story.

In 1950 the infamous Rhoads letter was cited again when two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate then-President Harry Truman, and one of the activists said he had dedicated his life to the Nationalist Party after hearing about the Rhoads letter.

Then in 2002, it was rediscovered by University of Puerto Rico biology professor Edwin Vazquez when he was preparing a lecture. It was Vazquez who wrote to AACR and demanded that the organization remove Rhoads' name from the award.

Not Known at AACR

AACR CEO Margaret Foti, PhD, said in a telephone interview, “What's amazing to me from the beginning is that this particular issue, which evidently a number of institutions in New York knew about, was never known to me or anyone else at AACR. It was just totally shocking to us to receive this barrage of communications from people in Puerto Rico out of the blue.”

These communications included one from Puerto Rico Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado and eventually led to AACR's suspending the Rhoads Award in December and commissioning an independent investigation by Jay Katz, Yale Law School Emeritus Professor of Law, Medicine and Psychiatry, who specializes in medical ethics and human experimentation.

This investigation concluded that although there was no evidence of Dr. Rhoads' killing patients or transplanting cancer cells, the letter itself was reprehensible enough to remove his name from the award.

Dr. Foti also said a number of former Rhoads Award recipients had expressed concern over the matter. AACR decided that once the new name was established it would be retroactive and that past awardees would receive new, updated plaques.

New Award: Not Named After a Person

“The award will not be named after any individual,” Dr. Foti said. “It will be a generic type of title that will connote outstanding achievement, but we still want to keep the spirit of the award, since it has been very effective in identifying young investigators who have made considerable contributions to cancer research early in their careers.”

Dr. Foti added that the anonymous-but-not-unknown donor of the award was also unaware of the allegations against Dr. Rhoads and was leaving the decision to change the name to AACR.

Dr. Lederer said that although the evidence against Dr. Rhoads was insufficient to conclude he had killed anyone during his time in Puerto Rico, there is little doubt he was a racist. America during the 1930s was very different from today, Dr. Lederer noted.

“The fascinating thing was that you could claim this letter was a joke and get away with it. The Tuskegee experiment began in 1932, and the Public Health Service wasn't hiding it or giving the men syphilis, but they were certainly exposing them to danger because of who they were. If we're going to tar Rhoads, the net has to be cast a lot farther.”

Current-Day Legacy

According to a Memorial Sloan-Kettering public affairs spokesperson, Dr. Rhoads is mentioned in the institution's History of Commitment brochure, and a group photo including him is on display in a historical retrospective in Memorial's main building.

At Rockefeller University, a spokesperson initially said she wasn't familiar with Dr. Rhoads or the controversy and would check into the matter. In a subsequent call, she said that with the university's archivists on vacation, the only available reference to Dr. Rhoads seemed to be a confirmation of his association with the former Institute from 1928 to 1939, without mention of his specific title or function, and there was no mention of the researcher in any institutional history books. However, Dr. Lederer had stated during her interview with OT that the bulk of her research had been conducted at Rockefeller.

Rewriting History

Do you have to rewrite history when people call attention to it? The answer should be an easy “No,” but often isn't because individuals and institutions aren't usually comfortable with ambiguity and complexity.

Issues are seldom black and white, and too often babies are prematurely thrown out with the bath water when institutions and organizations have knee-jerk reactions to social or political pressures.

When faced with two Rhoads diverged in a murky ethical landscape, AACR seemed to handle the Rhoads Memorial Award situation in a logical, scientific manner that brought about a solution that makes sense today.

The complicated legacy of Cornelius “Dusty” Rhoads, who died in 1959, should not cause society to promote nor deny his existence but should provide a perspective that neither condones what he wrote or thought—or the whitewashing of the incident by institutions and media of the 1930s—but that does give him due appropriate credit for his accomplishments as well as acknowledgement of his faults and sins.

Rhoads Awardees

Rhoads awardees over the years comprise a virtual who's who of cancer research and include among others: Bert Vogelstein, MD; Lance Liotta, MD, PhD; Eric S. Lander, PhD; Carol W. Greider, PhD; and Scott W. Lowe, PhD.

Interestingly, the first recipient in 1980, Malcolm A.S. Moore, DPhil, was a laboratory head at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which Dr. Rhoads had helped create during his tenure at its precursor institutions.

Darker Side

Yale medical historian Susan E. Lederer, PhD, noted that there have been other researchers like Dr. Rhoads who had made considerable contributions to medicine and science, but had a darker side to their pasts.

For example, Johns Hopkins still has a well-known lecture series named after Hideyo Noguchi, another early 20th century Rockefeller Institute researcher, who was identified as having used a syphilis compound to experiment on an estimated 400 orphans in New York City.

Also, Emory University Medical School changed its mind about naming its Dermatology Library after Sidney Olansky, Director of the Venereal Disease Research Laboratory (for what would become the Public Health Service) and in charge of the Tuskegee syphilis study, after Olansky tried to defend the infamous study on Prime Time Live in 1992.

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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