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.”