Between 1920 and 1960, an experiment was conducted on newborns in Sweden. This experiment was conducted without external oversight. In this experiment, infants were exposed to high doses of radiation, either from radium or from X-rays. If the infants exhibited hemangiomas, red protruding blood vessel tumors on the skin, during a visit to the pediatrician, they were referred for treatment. If one lived near Stockholm or Gothenburg, the child would receive treatment at Radiumhemmet in the case of Stockholm or Jubileumskliniken in the case of Gothenburg.

Hemangioma led to a referral

Hemangioma is a common condition in newborns that typically regresses during the first few years of life. Sometimes it is mistakenly associated with flat birthmarks commonly referred to as ’stork bites.’ The discoveries of the radioactive effects of substances like radium by Marie Curie at the time were evidence of progress in scientific knowledge. The aim was to explore the positive potential of these discoveries in medicine. A similar enthusiasm surrounded the use of X-rays, which were employed frequently.

It was likely determined that with a reasonable application of ionizing radiation, either from X-rays or direct radioactive radiation from radium, aesthetically unpleasant hemangiomas could be burned away. Given the overwhelming trust in the medical profession at that time, very few parents questioned the appropriateness of the procedure. The patient was too young to even be aware of what was happening unless the parents disclosed the intervention later in life. The experiment could thus continue for a long time without external scrutiny. The experiment also became very extensive, as it was a long-term study. Since it was an experiment, the foundational material was preserved, and today we know that it involved approximately 25,000 children born between 1920 and 1960.


Criticism from within the ranks

The decision to terminate the experiment was due to criticism from within the ranks. Sture Lindberg (1923-2015), a chief physician at Sahlgrenska in Gothenburg, led the opposition against the experiments and ultimately succeeded in overcoming powerful resistance to completely end the unnecessary, and probably risky, treatment. Sture also followed up on the side effects, and his final words on the treatment were, ”In retrospect, the large study groups that participated can somewhat cynically be seen as a gigantic experiment from which it is our duty to learn as much as possible.”

However, we on the editorial team were not aware of this knowledge until one of those subjected to the experiment reached out to us. Here, a woman born in 1951, the year she was born, shares her own story:

A human guinea pig tells her own story

”I am one of the children who was ’treated’ with ionizing radiation to remove a harmless birthmark, a so-called hemangioma. This happened at Radiumhemmet in the early 1950s when I was 4 months old. My parents received a referral from a district doctor and never questioned not going. That wasn’t done back then. I became aware that this could be a cause of my cognitive difficulties and mental health issues when I met a neighbor who had also been subjected to this experiment. He told me that he had read an article in Svenska Dagbladet reporting a study among conscripts showing a significant increase in mental retardation among those subjected to this ’radiation treatment.’ When I read a memorial for a doctor in Gothenburg, Sture Lindberg, in 2015, which included the words, ’…in the following years, he devoted much effort to follow up on the side effects caused by the treatments. Furthermore, it states…In retrospect, the large cohorts can somewhat cynically be seen as a gigantic experiment.’ That was the last straw; now I had to take action. I contacted Radiumhemmet, requested my medical records. It seemed like someone had used correction fluid to erase parts before it was copied. I contacted the responsible doctor and asked to be removed from the cohort. They promised to strike my name, but I can never be sure if they did. I don’t trust them much, of course. When I later contacted Ingemar Ljungqvist, it was because I believe that such a significant and giant abuse cannot be kept silent. An article in the Alma Nova magazine, issue 3, 2017, addressed the topic. Now, as experiments and abuses continue to affect us, it may be interesting to see that it was not entirely innocent in the past.”

The experiment came into use

Studies were conducted long afterward, both in Gothenburg and in Stockholm. Stockholm took the lead, where they matched the boys with the examinations later during the conscription for military service. The result was clear: a significantly higher proportion of the boys had developed cognitive and mental problems. This was just before the turn of the millennium. Subsequently, all the children were matched against the cancer registry in a joint report. Prominent research names included Lars-Erik Holm and Marie Lundell at the Karolinska Institute.

Elevated cancer risk

They examined whether the given dose of radiation resulted in an elevated risk of cancer. And it did. Especially for three types of cancer: thyroid cancer, breast cancer, and leukemia. The number of cancer cases was not particularly large, but the difference was significant. What was even clearer and made the report widely quoted within the research community was that a very clear correlation could be established between the dosage of radium/X-ray radiation and the number of cancer cases. During the radiation experiment, they had varied and, equally importantly, carefully recorded these values in the protocols. In other words, the higher the radiation dose the babies were exposed to, the more cancer cases occurred in the regions that were irradiated.

Sweden was somewhat unique in this context. They had conducted large-scale experiments on a population that neither could nor understood how to refuse such experiments. The experiment was well-structured, and thanks to the newly introduced personal identification numbers, they could trace the test subjects. However, it was equally clear that even though this experiment was appreciated by the research community, there was almost complete silence in the Swedish media. The public was not to be informed.

Absence of ethical debate

In the scientific reports, not a single word was mentioned about ethics, which is likely a Swedish characteristic as well. It is worth noting that the conducted study also served as a stepping stone for at least Lars-Erik Holm. He would become the Director-General of the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare a few years later. In this respect, it is not much different from the Vipeholm experiment, which also served as a shortcut for the careers of several individuals involved.

Ref Int J Cancer. 2003 Sep 10;106(4):580-7.

Thyroid cancer risk after thyroid examination with 131I: a population-based cohort study in Sweden.

Dickman PW1, Holm LE, Lundell G, Boice JD Jr, Hall P.

We know more about unethical experiments in the United States

Here is a place for a brief reflection. The Swedish unethical, scientifically designed experiments are probably much less known to a Swedish audience than the two American counterparts: the Tuskegee Experiment from 1932 to 1972 and the Manhattan Project. In the Tuskegee Experiment, black laborers and their families, where a family member had contracted syphilis, were followed without intervention to study the progression of the disease until death, as well as how the spread of the infection developed in the local community. The Manhattan Project involved the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. In several sub-experiments, attempts were made to determine the health risks of radioactive substances by, without consent, injecting radioactive material into treated cancer patients to observe the damage in the injected area after weeks. Both of these experiments have been extensively documented by American authors.

In Sweden, they managed to keep the public in the dark for much longer.

This reflection may be a very important explanation as to why Sweden is allowed to carry out secret, primarily American-initiated, military experiments on Swedish subjects. Not least, Sweden has been allowed to implement a milder form of lockdown during the current COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps to simply study how to proceed the next time a virus is accidentally released from a laboratory.

Ingemar Ljungqvist and Cecilia Flodin, Radiation Experiment on Babies




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