Does Scientist and Cancer Researcher, Cornelius Rhoads, Admit to Murder in a Letter to a Colleague?

On 10 November 1931, Cornelius Rhoads, an American pathologist and oncologist, was at a party at a Puerto Rican co-worker’s house in Cidra. After having some drinks, he left, finding his car had been vandalized and several items stolen. He went to his office, where he wrote and signed a letter addressed to “Ferdie” (Fred W. Stewart, a colleague from Boston, by then working at the Memorial Hospital for Cancer Research in New York). He wrote the following:

“Dear Ferdie:

The more I think about the Larry Smith appointment the more disgusted I get. Have you heard any reason advanced for it? It certainly is odd that a man out with the entire Boston group, fired by Wallach, and as far as I know, absolutely devoid of any scientific reputation should be given the place. There is something wrong somewhere with our point of view.

The situation is settled in Boston. Parker and Nye are to run the laboratory together and either Kenneth or MacMahon to be assistant; the chief to stay on. As far as I can see, the chances of my getting a job in the next ten years are absolutely nil. One is certainly not encouraged to make scientific advances, when it is a handicap rather than an aid to advancement. I can get a damn fine job here and am tempted to take it. It would be ideal except for the Porto Ricans. They are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere. It makes you sick to inhabit the same island with them. They are even lower than Italians. What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might then be livable. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting cancer into several more. The latter has not resulted in any fatalities so far… The matter of consideration for the patients’ welfare plays no role here — in fact all physicians take delight in the abuse and torture of the unfortunate subjects.

Do let me know if you hear any more news.

Sincerely, “Dusty””

When you write a letter like that, it’s best not to end it with “sincerely,” but that’s exactly what Rhoads did. He left it on his desk, where it was seen by a colleague the next morning. The colleague made copies of the letter and went public with them. Soon the letter was published in newspapers and to be discussed at the Puerto Rican Medical Association. The Rockefeller Foundation, and the newly-appointed governor of Puerto Rico, set up investigations, but Rhoads had already left for New York.

There are two different points of view on this story. One is taken by people who believe that Rhoads did ‘sincerely’ admit to murder, and that the 13 people who died under his care were killed either by Rhoads directly, or fell victim to cancer cells he had transplanted into them. The other point of view was taken by the Rockefeller public relations firm, which said that he was writing a “fantastic and playful” note for his own amusement. It was a satire, skewering a typical racist’s views on Puerto Ricans and meant to express the opposite of what it actually said.

Rhoads was not the first to take refuge in the works of Jonathan Swift, nor would he be the last. Given the circumstances of the letter, and a look at his wording, the satire defense doesn’t work. Still, the letter did not seem to hurt his career in America. It helped that an investigation found no evidence that any of the patients who died under his care seemed to have suffered from abuse or neglect. Most likely, the person Rhoads hurt most was himself, and his reputation.

Dr. Cornelius Rhoads had a long and successful career. An oncologist, he investigated treatments for anemia before going on to head a memorial hospital where he helped shape the newly-emerging science of chemotherapy on cancer patients. His studies led to an anonymous donor to endow an annual award to be given out to young researchers who make significant contributions to the treatment of cancer. Perhaps most interestingly, he later goes on to establish the U.S. Army Biological Warfare facilities in Fort Detrick Maryland (origin of the HIV/AIDS virus, the Avian Flu virus and the Swine Flu / A-H1N1 virus), Utah and Panama, and is named to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, where he begins a series of radiation exposure experiments on American soldiers and civilian hospital patients.

A man that seems to be hell-bent on killing Puerto Rico through a cancer infestation would not seem a suitable candidate to be elected by the U.S. to be in charge of chemical warfare projects and receive a seat on the United States Atomic Energy Commission, right? But that’s exactly what happened. He also became vice-president of the American Cancer Society. Any shocking documentation that would have happened during his chemical warfare period would probably have been destroyed by now.

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