World Wakes Up to Horrific Scientific History

Half a century after secret studies on the effects of radioactive fallout were carried out in the United States and Britain, the world is waking up to the "body snatching" of the 1950s.

Called "Project Sunshine," studies conducted on dead babies sought to measure the amount of radioactive strontium-90 being absorbed by humans due to nuclear testing.

On Tuesday, the Australian Ministry for Health and Aged Care launched an investigation into reports of Australian baby samples being dispatched for Project Sunshine without the parents' permission.

"We need to verify if Australian babies were used in this manner, how many, and from where they came," said a spokesman for Australian Health Minister Michael Wooldridge.

The investigation was launched days after a British newspaper reported that British scientists obtained children's bodies from various hospitals and shipped their bones and other body parts to the United States for classified nuclear experiments.

Oceans away in Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, the newspaper report set off a furor, prompting authorities to launch an inquiry on Wednesday.

'Serving Their Country'

More than 1,500 cadavers — many of them babies — were gathered from half a dozen countries from Europe to Australia in the 1950s for the studies on the effects of radiation conducted by the now defunct Atomic Energy Commission, according to U.S. government documents.

Project Sunshine, which was conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, attempted to study the absorption of strontium-90 in human tissue, primarily bone.

In June 1995, a presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, set up by former President Clinton released classified documents from the Atomic Energy Commission, which showed that scientists working on Project Sunshine were aware of the dubious ethical and legal grounds on which their research was being conducted.

In a transcript of a secret meeting on Jan. 18, 1955, Dr. Willard Libby, a University of Chicago researcher, who went on to win the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, acknowledged that the difficulty in getting human samples was resulting in "great gaps" in the project's findings.

"I don't know how to get them," Libby is quoted as saying. "But I do say that it is a matter of prime importance to get them and particularly in the young age group. So, human samples are of prime importance and if anybody knows how to do a good job of body snatching, they will really be serving their country."

'Bits and Pieces'

For many unsuspecting parents, the experience was nightmarish.

In a 1995 British documentary, Deadly Experiments, Jean Prichard, a British mother of a stillborn baby whose legs were removed by British hospital doctors in 1957, said she was forbidden to dress her daughter for her funeral to prevent her from finding out what had happened.

"I asked if I could put her christening robe on her, but I wasn't allowed to, and that upset me terribly because she wasn't christened," she said. "No one asked me about doing things like that, taking bits and pieces from her."

Though British and Canadian media have, in the past, reported that cadavers of infants were sent to the United States for Project Sunshine, there have been no official investigations into the murky shipments.

Fifty Years Later

While admitting that British scientists did indeed work on Project Sunshine, Elizabeth Taylor, a spokeswoman for the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority said the organization was only beginning to sift through hundreds of documents, not all of which have been declassified.

"Following the [Observer] report, we started to look at this, it's a mountain of information," said Taylor. "This is about what happened in the 1950s, it's not easy to do this."

Taylor said the organization had so far not been able to trace records of bodies being sent by British scientists to the United States.

The sheer volume of papers and the fact that they were conducted around 50 years ago make investigations a challenging prospect and could explain why governments of countries that participated in Project Sunshine are only recently waking up to their parts in the ghoulish studies.

Wooldridge himself was not aware that Australian babies were allegedly sent to the United States until the British media carried reports earlier this week, said a spokesman.

He said the DOE had not yet been contacted to assist in the investigation though he fully expected the department to cooperate.

When contacted, a spokesman for the DOE confirmed the department had not been contacted: "My understanding is the Australian inquiry is looking at their own records."

ABCNEWS reported details of the program in 1995, including the practice of obtaining cadavers from cities where tracking was lax, particularly in poverty- stricken areas.

ABCNEWS' Andrew Chang contributed to this report.