25th Anniversary Historical Highlight: Exploring Legacy of Report on Human Radiation Experiments

January 28, 2020

Shortly before she would found the Berman Institute in 1995, Ruth Faden was asked to consult the U.S. Department of Energy on reports of government-sponsored radiation-related medical research conducted on citizens without their knowledge.

Faden, was shocked by the accounts of widespread radiation experiments on unknowing, unconsenting citizens. Faden suggested that the DOE convene an independent investigation, and it should not be limited to that department alone.

Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary and President Bill Clinton agreed, asking Faden to lead the investigation as chair of the White House Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments—known by its acronym, ACHRE. Faden assembled an interdisciplinary staff of historians, clinicians, philosophers, lawyers, and scientists who worked together with the committee for 18 months before issuing a report on Oct. 3, 1995.

In 2016, the Berman Institute convened a symposium to consider the committee’s work and its impact in the 20 years since the release of its report. The Secrecy, Security, and Science Symposium brought together the original members of the ACHRE committee and staff to reflect on the seminal report and its impact since 1995. They explored topics including the regulation of human-subject research, considerations around remedies for past wrongs, and the use of historical information to make moral judgments about the past.

When President Clinton accepted the ACHRE report and its recommendations in October 1995, he established the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. Successive presidents have continued the practice, ensuring that high level attention to bioethics continues at the federal level.

Faden went on to establish the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics in 1996 and served as its director for 20 years, stepping down from that role in June 2016.

“In terms of the accomplishments of the commission, to me, one of the most important was recording history,” Faden said in 2000, reflecting on the legacy of ACHRE. “Like any kind of completing or correcting of the historical record, there’s an inestimable value that you have to attach to knowing that a part of history that was not acknowledged, not preserved, is now protected. It will take time to determine whether we were a footnote in history or whether we had more impact than that.”