May 18, 1998 12:00 PM

Fred Boyce, a Norwell, Mass., real estate broker and carnival concessionaire, was pulling into a parking lot in early 1994 when he was jolted by news on the car radio. A federal investigation had concluded that in the 1940s and ’50s, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had conducted radiation experiments on unwitting children at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass. “What! That can’t be right,” thought Boyce, 57. “That’s us! That’s me!”

In all, at least 74 boys had been fed oatmeal laced with radioactive isotopes that acted as tracers while the food was digested. The experiments, sponsored by the Quaker Oats Co.—and approved by the federal Atomic Energy Commission—were undertaken in part to match advertising claims by rival Cream of Wheat that nutrients in the latter cereal traveled throughout the body. The studies were among dozens of government-sanctioned radiation experiments, classified Top Secret, that were conducted during the Cold War on children, pregnant women, hospital patients and prisoners.

Boyce, recalling how he had been lured into the experiments five decades ago with gifts of Hopalong Cassidy mugs, boat rides and outings to Boston Braves baseball games, was tempted at first to let bygones be bygones. He had spent a lifetime trying to forget his years at the brick-walled institution on the outskirts of Boston. But the more he thought about it, the more determined he became to seek compensation for himself and his fellow guinea pigs—who had been told they were the lucky members of the school’s “Science Club.” “I said to myself, ‘Go and open this thing up. What are they going to do to me?’ ” says Boyce. He began tracking down his schoolmates, many of whom were reluctant to join the suit, fearful of being stigmatized.

Thanks in part to Boyce’s efforts, he and about 40 other victims accepted $1.85 million on April 6 from MIT and Quaker Oats to settle a class-action suit against the university and the food company. Now, says Boyce, they will press forward with suits against the federal government, for providing the radioactive material, and against the state, for allowing the experiments. “The state guys were rats,” he says. “They were supposed to act as our parents.”

When the MIT scientists first stepped into Fernald’s grim wards, they had little trouble enticing Boyce to participate, along with dozens of other Fernald boys who had been orphaned or taken from dysfunctional families, labeled—often inaccurately—feebleminded and warehoused among hundreds of severely retarded adults and children. Daily life was a numbing mix of boredom and brutality. Boyce recalls how an attendant watching over a ward of 36 children would force them to sit on wooden benches for hours with arms folded. “If you unfolded your arms,” he says, “you were whacked.” Any opportunity to escape Fernald was so irresistible, Boyce says, that had the scientists offered an outing in exchange for taking arsenic, he would have agreed: “My hand is up! I want it! We’re going to a ball game!”

The young Boyce was certain that the scientists would be his salvation. They would witness the beatings, humiliations and daily deprivations and put a stop to them. “I was sure they were going to say, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ ” he recalls.

But if the researchers became aware of conditions, they never let on. Rather, they forged ahead with their experiments without ever mentioning radiation. Indeed, MIT scientist Robert Harris noted that recalcitrant children might be “induced to change their minds [by emphasizing] the Fernald Science Club angle.”

The experiments remained secret until 1993, when Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, breaking precedent, began declassifying documents and urging compensation. The following year a state panel confirmed that small amounts of radioactive calcium and iron were fed to at least 74 Fernald residents, leading MIT President Charles Vest and President Clinton to apologize for the tests conducted without informed consent. Nonetheless, a presidential advisory committee maintains that the experiments’ participants are not entitled to federal compensation because the trace doses of radiation they received had no effect on their health.

To Science Club alum Joe Almeida, 55, such claims are infuriating, particularly because a significant amount of radioactive isotopes supplied for the experiments remains unaccounted for. “You’ve got to think about it all the time. It’s bad enough that [the state] took our childhood away,” says Almeida, now a bus driver at Fernald, but in ongoing negotiations state officials “have the attitude, ‘Give them a few cents and shut them up.’ ” Michael Mattchen, a lawyer representing Boyce and the others, says that his clients’ rights were violated and that they are now suffering from emotional distress. “The fact that they weren’t maimed or killed is a pretty lame defense.”

Boyce was sent to Fernald in 1949, at age 8. The second of 13 children taken from his mother when she could no longer care for them after her husband died in 1941, he had been living in a foster home—his fifth—when his foster mother, too, passed away. He and four foster siblings were labeled mentally retarded and taken to Fernald. Increasingly rebellious as he grew into his teens, Boyce was occasionally confined in a high-security unit at the institution. Finally, in 1959, Fernald’s administrators discharged him, then 18 and virtually unable to read or write.

After earning $1 an hour hammering ladders together for the now-defunct Grifford Ladder Company in Waltham, Boyce later began traveling the country as a carnival worker, eventually running his own concessions. Briefly married and divorced in 1987, he lives in a fashionable Boston suburb and travels the carnival circuit eight months a year. Self-educated, he devotes much of the rest of his time to helping less-fortunate Fernald alumni prepare for future suits. “Fred’s not just for Fred,” says Joe Almeida. “Fred is for everybody.”

Bruce Frankel

Eric Francis in Norwell

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