Britain snatched babies' bodies for nuclear labs
Eddie Goncalves The Observer,
Sunday June 3 2001
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Advertising guide License/buy our content About this articleClose This article appeared in the Observer on Sunday June 03 2001 on p9 of the News section. It was last updated at 11:31 on June 04 2001. Britain's nuclear industry was involved in a top secret international operation to steal dead babies for up to three decades, according to newly declassified documents.
The shocking revelation comes in the wake of the controversy over the organ retention scandal at some of this country's leading hospitals.
The papers, released by the American Department of Energy, show that scientists from the UK Atomic Energy Authority removed children's bones and bodies to ship to the United States for classified nuclear experiments.
Among the hundreds of pages of documents released are letters exchanged between American and British government scientists in which they discuss levels of radiation in the ribs of stillborn babies and lists of dead children's bodies obtained from the Middlesex Hospital and spirited to American nuclear laboratories.
The human 'guinea pigs' are not named, but assigned codenames as part of tight security surrounding the experiments. Baby B-1102, for example, is listed as a boy who died aged eight months. Baby B-595 was a girl who was 13 months old when she died.
The report listing them - stamped 'top secret' - acknowledges the help of doctors at the Central Middlesex Hospital's Department of Morbid Anatomy and Histology.
Although the US government has released hundreds of documents about the operation, it has retained even more sensitive papers thought to detail some of the most embarrassing aspects of collusion between the British and American authorities. Asked to release a file entitled Classified Discussions at Harwell, the Oxfordshire headquarters of the British government's nuclear research activities, the US Department of Energy told The Observer: 'This document has been determined to be not declassifiable and has been removed from this folder.'
An investigation into the 'body snatching' programme - codenamed Project Sunshine - ordered by former President Bill Clinton, was scathing: 'Researchers employed deception in the solicitation of bones of deceased babies from intermediaries with access to human remains.'
Among the documents obtained by The Observer is the transcript of a secret meeting in Washington of Project Sunshine's keenest minds. They show that Willard Libby, a renowned scientist who later won the Nobel prize for his research into carbon dating techniques, instructed colleagues to skirt the law in their search for bodies.
'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,' Libby said. 'We hired an expensive law firm to look up the law on body-snatching. It is not very encouraging. It shows how very difficult it is going to be to do it legally.'
British scientists collaborated with the project from the outset in the early Fifties, the documents show. Correspondence between them and their American counterparts at the US Atomic Energy Commission includes a letter from the UK Atomic Energy Authority giving information about stillborn children whose bones had been experimented on in Britain.
Other reports compare bodies obtained in England - known as 'Area Five' by the project's controllers - and in San Francisco. One paper says parts from British babies and children up to the age of 10 years were 'readily available'.
At the same time as supplying the Americans, British scientists from Harwell and the Medical Research Council conducted their own research on dead children. Between 1955 and 1970, they collected around 6,000 bodies.
Jean Prichard, whose baby died in 1957, said her child's legs were removed by hospital doctors and taken to Harwell without permission.
To prevent her from finding out what had happened, she says she was forbidden to dress her daughter for her funeral. '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. No one asked me about doing things like that, taking bits and pieces from her.'
British governments have always denied any involvement in Project Sunshine, and the link - first suggested in a 1995 Channel 4 documentary - was not investigated for the American report.
However, new documents released by the US government and reports now in the UK Public Records Office at Kew, South-west London, show leading British scientists were involved in body-snatching for both nations.
They indicate that the British conducted tests on babies from Hong Kong, and acquired body parts from doctors in Cambridge, Newmarket, Norwich and Chelmsford, as well as the coroner for west London. A leading cancer research centre, the Royal Marsden Hospital, London, took part in the project, the documents say.
Records show that almost half the bodies were of newborn or very young babies. Laboratories at Cambridge University burnt the bones.
Nuclear scientists in Britain say their research ended in the Seventies.
In the Nineties, researchers from Aldermaston and Harwell obtained foetal and placental tissues from abortions carried out in Oxfordshire and Cumbria, although this time, they say, it was with the consent of the families.