Against Their Will
The Secret History of Medical Experimentation
on Children in Cold War America
by Allen M. Hornblum, Judith L. Newman and Gregory J. Dober
When Charles Dyer was 8 years old, in the late 1940s, his alcoholic
parents sent him to a reform school in Massachusetts where instead of
attending classes, children were forced to do various forms of work,
including being strapped to harnesses as if they were horses, then
“pull[ing] a plank with a rug wrapped around it to wax the wooden
floors” for hours on end.
Sadly, things would only get worse for Dyer.
The heartbreaking “Against Their Will” tells of our country’s shocking
history of using low-functioning children, among other disadvantaged
populations, in harmful, painful and sometimes even deadly medical
In his early teens, Dyer wound up at the Walter E. Fernald State School
in Waltham, Mass. Fernald housed “nearly 2,000 children and adults with
a stunning array of afflictions and disabilities,” although some kids
were placed there for simply having low IQs or slight behavioral
problems. These children were placed alongside “many severely impaired
people,” with one student later describing the place as “a combination
of prison and human zoo.”
The children there were beaten, and sexual abuse was constant.
Given their dreary, isolated lives, it seemed like a treat that day in
1950 when about 20 of the kids were introduced to outsiders from MIT and
told they had a chance to participate in something called the Science
The children were very excited.
“We never got out of Fernald. It was terrible in there,” one of those
boys, Gordon Shattuck, said decades later. “They were offering us trips
to Fenway Park to see the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Braves and to go
to MIT for parties and tours of the college. We all thought it was
Dyer says they were even promised Mickey Mouse watches.
Sadly, many details about Science Club had been left out.
The children were isolated from the general population and required to
eat “every bite” of a bowl of oatmeal each morning. They also had
needles plunged into them six times a day to take their blood, and gave
four urine samples daily, always with nurses looking on.
After a short time, the boys wanted out. But when Shattuck made that
request, he found, to his horror, that getting out was not an option.
The 12-year-old refused to allow any more blood to be drawn and was sent
to Ward 22, “a building with six special punishment cells.”