Recently, a friend and I were discussing receiving our COVID-19 vaccinations and she mentioned she was concerned that her elderly mother was possibly not going to get one. Being an advocate for the vaccination, I questioned her why her mother would not. She told me that African Americans are very often reluctant to rush into medical treatment such as that because of the history of being subjected to experimental medical treatments in the past. I’m sure she could tell from the look on my face that, as embarrassing as it was, I did not know what she was referring to.
As an example, she asked me if I was familiar with the true story of Mr. Vertus Hardiman and what happened to him, and others, at Lyles Station many years ago? I replied that I was not. She explained that he was one of several young, black children who were subjected to radiation of their heads in an experiment to determine how radiation levels affected humans. I was dumbfounded by the audacity of this thought, but also that this happened in, basically, my backyard and I had never known this important segment of history. She shared with me that even though Hardiman had been subjected to this life-altering experiment, he did not let it sour his life, for he was a person who chose love over hate.
I have a very difficult time reading or watching anything where children are mistreated. Even though I knew this was going to be challenging for me, I searched out the book, as well as the movie, “Hole in the Head” by Wilbert L. Smith, Ph.D. (615.507 SM) at the library. It was important to me that I know this history.
In 1927, the radiation craze was sweeping the country and the Gibson County Hospital in Princeton was gifted radiation equipment. But, it fell into untrained hands. A trustee who supervised the Lyles Station School and his brother-in-law, a doctor at the hospital, developed a plan which involved experimenting on black children from the school. The doctor needed to train technicians to deliver applications of radiation, how to set the dials for safe levels. He cleverly gained access to these children saying he was treating them with a new cure for scalpel ringworm contamination, coercing parents into signing a field trip permission slip to conduct what was referred to only as “treatment.” The school principal, nor the parents, had any idea the children would be victims of radiation.
Out of the 10 children subjected to the horrific radiation that day, Hardiman, age 5, received the largest dose of radiation, with the intensity being increased with each child. What each child sustained that day was nothing short of being in a torture chamber. Even the technician went running from the room after Hardiman’s session, screaming that she had “given him too much!” The children were physically ill and in a hysterical state immediately. These children, nine boys and one girl, spent their entire lives wearing hats and wigs to cover the damage done to their heads, which were permanently scarred, and their hair never returned. Cruelly, they were also subjected to bullying because of their looks.
Hardiman and his brother were both rejected by the military because of their medical conditions and Hardiman moved to California. He never married and was completely devoted to his work. He worked two full-time janitorial jobs for over 40 years and never missed a day of work at either. He lived very frugally and saved his money and acquired a huge real estate portfolio. Even though Hardiman was in pain from the radiation damage, he continued to channel his energy toward working hard and was determined to charge forward through life.
Hardiman was an extremely religious man and had developed a 20 year friendship with Wilbert Smith, who sang in the church choir with him. Smith had never asked Hardiman why he wore the wig and hats, but he was always curious. Their friendship had reached a remarkable level and Smith considered Hardiman to be a father figure to him. When Hardiman reached 83 years old, he came to Smith’s office one day and Smith could tell his friend was weary and something was wrong. That was the day that Hardiman revealed to his friend the tragedy of his childhood. Hardiman said he was getting old, was in so much pain and just could not carry this burden alone anymore. This was the first time anyone had known about his condition since he was a child. Smith could hardly take it all in, that he had known this man for 20 years, sang next to him in the choir and had never known the trauma that this man had suffered his entire life.
Smith was intrigued by Hardiman’s story, wanting to learn more, and asked his friend if he would give permission to have his story told. They traveled back to Indiana to interview all of the surviving victims of the radiation, many of whom were Hardiman’s relatives. It was difficult for the survivors to participate in the interviews and many found it unnerving for they had never removed their wigs and hats to anyone. They also still found it painful to replay the details of that dreadful day at the Gibson County Hospital. They had spent their entire lives hiding their scars and dealing with fears that the radiation would someday cause cancer. They also had spent all these years searching for peace and patience, some found forgiveness in their hearts and some could not.
Smith cared for Hardiman until his death of cancer of the brain at the age of 85. Even though Smith knew it was not easy for Hardiman to uncover the painful memories of his early childhood, he knew that Hardiman and the other children’s story was one that needed to be told.
Sometimes we must force ourselves to grow through greater awareness.
Both the book and the movie, “Hole in the Head — A Life Revealed” are available at the Knox County Public Library.