Dr. Rhoads’s Confession of Multiple Murders was no Joke

©2004 Pedro Aponte Vázquez

(Excerpt from The Unsolved Case of

Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads: An Indictment)


It seems that some historians are capable of being really stubborn no matter how closely the historical facts stare at them in the eye. A case in point is an article by a Puerto Rican historian who evidently has only read superficial and hastily written news reports on [the decision by the American Association for Cancer Research to remove Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads’s name from one of its awards].[1] José Curet not only sprinkles his article with data bred by his imagination, but goes the extra mile and leaves the door open to the possibility that perhaps doctor Rhoads stopped short of killing the people he bragged he had “killed off”.

Curet, who evidently misunderstood the news about the cancellation of the Rhoads award for year 2002 pending the investigation by Dr. Jay Katz, said that “The recent news that a scientific research award would be named after doctor Cornelius P. Rhoads, has once more given life to the history of an infamy. In letters dated in 1931, we have been reminded, doctor Rhoads told about having sterilized several Puerto Ricans and inoculated cancer into others, obviously without the consent of the patients, in a personal attempt to ‘exterminate’ our population. While these facts apparently could not be corroborated then, his written confession and his disdain towards Puerto Ricans is reason enough to disturb us. And, in fact, such has been the case.”[2]

I pointed out in an article of my own that his article contains “inaccurate data,” but that, rather than the “concrete data that do not coincide with the verified historical facts, the reason I write is Mr. Curet’s assertion according to which ‘the facts apparently could not be corroborated at the time’.”[3] Curet immediately explained that he was quoting almost directly from local dailies and had been misled by information published in Primera Hora, the previous October 15, where Dr. Héctor Pesquera, he said, is quoted as saying that “‘We need to establish the veracity of the allegations before taking action’.”[4]

He added that he erred when he wrote “‘sterilized’” where “more appropriately“ he should have written ‘exterminated’.” Curet further explained that his intention had not been to “examine” Rhoads’s actions, about whom he said he knows “only what the press has published,” but “the image of science we have formed or deformed since the beginning of the past century” and that he stands firm regarding the “accuracy and veracity” of the data he published within that context. He closed by saying “I firmly believe in criticism, but not only in the one that takes datum after datum, but in the one that encompasses the vision of the whole. And I believe that we lack good critique on those visions; above all now, when a ghost has reappeared and insists in again turning history into an execution wall.”

Curet is not alone. When it began to look as if the Rhoads affair finally would begin to be accepted by the scientific community as the serial murder case it actually is, Science magazine has published an article that is reminiscent of the backward times of Time  magazine’s “Porto Ricochet”.[5] In “Revisiting a 1930's Scandal, AACR to Rename a Prize”, journalism professor Douglas Starr, of Boston University, causes the impression that, although  it is true that  doctor Rhoads indeed piqued the “locals” — as he refers in his article to Puerto Ricans— actually he did not kill anyone.

Evidence of this is the fact that he asserts, without any solid foundation whatsoever, that “Few people seriously believe that Rhoads injected patients with cancer cells […].” When I asked Starr for the research design of the opinion poll he conducted that led him to that conclusion,[6] he answered: “I came to that conclusion after off-the-record discussions with scientists who are familiar with the case and additional research into source material.”[7] To base such conclusion, significant as it is, on mere discussions, whether off the record or not, unequivocally shows a flagrant disregard for the scientific method in the search for truth.

Even if it were believable that the “scientists” he discussed the issue with, no matter how many they were, know enough about the Rhoads case as to give an educated opinion, he had no scientific basis for his conclusion. Moreover, when I asked Starr to share with me whatever he meant by “additional research into source material” he didn’t answer.

At the outset, Starr hints that, as a journalist, he is going to follow the example of Machiavellian Time editor Henry Luce in “Porto Ricochet” for, in his lead —that is, in the first sentence of his first paragraph— he characterizes his confession of murder merely as an “offensive boast” and refers to Rhoads’s victims as “patients”, not as experimental subjects. Furthermore, he points out in his second paragraph that Rhoads never mailed the letter, an allegation made in 1932 not only by the confessed killer himself, but also by the U.S. authorities in Puerto Rico and others who participated in the cover up. The point was important back then, because it went hand in hand with the explanation that, rather than a voluntary and spontaneous confession of murder, the letter was “a playful composition” he had written for his own diversion —for which reason he didn’t mail it. Since he didn’t mail it, he couldn’t even be accused of libel, as the so-called Prosecutor pointed out in his report in no uncertain way.

Starr was aware of the fact that the reason Rhoads did not mail his letter was that he forgot to take it with him and left it on top of the desk where he had written it. There it was found shortly thereafter by Betty Guillermetty, the person who worked at that desk. Next day, laboratory technician Luis Baldoni-Martínez found it next to his microscope, but didn’t read it. Subsequently, it was found and read by Aida Soegard and other of his fellow workers upon reporting to work.

I know that Starr was aware of these facts and many others he chose to ignore, because he discussed with me by telephone several times from Boston the contents of the many documents I had lent him. During these conversations I emphasized the fact, among others, that Rhoads and the Rockefeller Commission did not come to Puerto Rico to give poor people the medical care they urgently needed, but to experiment with them without their knowledge and consent. Yet, Starr stresses that Rhoads and the other members of the Rockefeller Commission saw over 250 “patients”, once again depicting him as a regular physician, not as a scientific researcher. I also emphasized the fact that the main issue here was not that Rhoads attempted to kill people by means of transplanting cancer, which he himself made clear “ha[d] not resulted in any fatalities so far…”, but that he had already “killed off eight” human beings.

It was more convenient for the authorities and [Rhoads’s] supporters then, as it is today for his sympathizers, to concentrate on the supposed impossibility of transplanting cancerous cells from humans to humans —and without seeing this as attempted murder— than to confront actual murders of real people.

His insults to the Puerto Rican nation, were still easier to deal with, especially then, after only 34 years of the military occupation of the island. This made it easier for the AACR to say  that “there was an incredibly racist element to all this”, without going into the criminal aspects of his confession, and then refuse to make public the report on the basis of which it reached its conclusions. The AACR further expects the people of both, Puerto Rico and the United States, to believe that its release of its decision on April 21 —coincidentally, 38 years to the day of death of Pedro Albizu-Campos— and the publication of Starr’s article in Science in that same week was only a very happy coincidence.

As if he still were not sure that he had put his point across, Starr quotes doctor Margaret Foti, Chief Executive Officer of the AACR as saying that “The contents of the letter were not acceptable —then or now”— and that “they were certainly inappropriate for a physician and should not be associated with this award,” in reference to the Rhoads award. The purpose of that quote seems to be to drive home the idea that the only important part of Rhoads’s letter is the one in which he insults the “locals”.

In order to strengthen his position in defense of Rhoads so as to lighten the burden of the AACR, as Luce tried to lighten the burden of the Rockefeller Foundation, Starr goes as far as describing Rhoads as a “noble” person, in case that a probability remains of someone seeing Rhoads as a murderer. “TIME magazine,” Starr announces, “headlined the incident as ‘Porto Ricochet’ (using the Anglicized spelling of the time), implying that the doctor’s noble efforts had come back to bite him.”[8] (Emphasis added). Who told Starr that such was the intention of whoever wrote the title? I suggest that the fact that the news of Rhoads’s confession traveled fast through­out the island, bouncing from town to town, may have given place to the title. But then again, this explanation leaves out the possibility of bringing in Rhoads’s “nobility”.

In a struggle against the truth that by now should seem desperate to anyone that knows the intricacies of the Rhoads case better than the scientists he claims to have interviewed in private, Starr tells the unsuspecting editor and trusting readers of Science magazine that “Dr. William Castle had conducted a case-by-case investigation of the 13 patients who died during Rhoads tenure and found nothing suspicious.” I will not address the multiple errors in Starr’s article pertaining to content, but this is a detail I must not overlook. I assure Science readers and others, that I made available to Professor Starr a copy of a letter from Castle where he shared with “Dusty” the fact that he had “abetted” the investigation, but in which Castle in no way even tries to imply that he conducted an investigation of any sort. What Castle actually did was to abet the cover up of Rhoads’s murders —something he did for his own good.

In a letter dated January 29, 1932,[9] Bill Castle tells “Dusty” Rhoads:

Dear Dusty:

This is a copy of a statement I have made to the attorney General in charge of the official investigation. Payne is also sending one to the Foundation. If you care to, show it to Drs. Flexner and Cole.

It is very fortunate that I had not left before this started. Garrido Morales and Morales Otero are the medical men associated in the investigation with Qunmes (sic) the fiscal (sic).

Everything will of course come out all right, and as there is nothing to conceal I am abetting the progress of the investigation in every way possible.

The associated  press (sic) is going to get a cable today from Hull. I recommend that you make no statements without consulting Dr. Flexner or Dr. Russell.

As ever


I hope to sail Thursday, Feb. 4th.[10]

The allusion to “Hull” and The Associated Press (AP) refers to Castle’s conspiracy with a reporter to tamper with the truth. Howard Hull was a reporter for AP in San Juan and correspondent for The New York Times. In a cable dated in Washington, D. C., January 30, 1932, Hull attributed to Puerto Rico so-called Resident Commissioner in Washington, attorney Félix Córdova-Dávila, a statement he did not make according to which the charges against Rhoads were a “Nationalist publicity stunt”. When Córdova-Dávila protested, AP rectified.[11]

The documented truth is that Castle did not conduct “a case-by-case investigation of the 13 patients who died  during the experiments Rhoads and the others carried out in San Juan”, nor any other kind of investigation into this matter. He did provide the “General Statement” quoted entirely above, a copy of which I lent Starr for his article, but did not even testify under oath during the so-called investigation. Thus, Castle was neither a witness nor an investigator. In fact, as Baldoni implies, as far as the laboratory workers were concerned, he rather was a suspect.

It should be noted in this regard that Payne was not satisfied with Castle’s attitude. In the chronological report to the Rockefeller Foundation (quoted above) on how he had handled the scandal, he says that “Doctor Castle refused to co-operate with me in this. He claim­ed complete ignorance of the contents of the letter and would have no part in clearing up questions concerned with it. This was in spite of his knowledge that there was agitation which had not yet manifested itself in official action.” In that report, Payne states that Castle’s attitude improved after the issue began to look “serious”. Says Payne in reference to a joint press interview with Dr. William Galbreath, director of Presbyterian Hospital:

Dr. Galbreath then gave a general denial of the supposed crimes and I concurred with him. This interview was conducted in Spanish and for that reason we did not ask Dr. Castle to be present. Shortly afterward I asked him to prepare a statement and to be ready to interview reporters with me, should it be necessary. He readily agreed and from this time on we had his active help in all that had to be done. In the afternoon a weekly paper ran an extra in which the case was featured with scare-heads and cartoons.

In what one could reasonably suspect is another effort to lead his readers away from the truth so as to soften the impact of the case on the AACR, Starr even changes the date when an event he considers relevant was alleged to have taken place.

It was argued then that Rhoads, rather than a victimizer, was a victim of ungrateful and backward natives who stripped his car one night while he was at a party where he allegedly got drunk. Since Rhoads wrote his confession of murder on November 11, Starr conveniently reports that the party where Rhoads supposedly got drunk took place on November 10.

The correct date, however, is November 5, according to Payne himself, as well as to Castle’s close friend Celia Núñez, who stated under oath:

That Doctor Cornelius P. Rhoads, at my invitation, attended the dance that took place on the night of November 5, 1931, for the benefit of the Second [School] Unit of Cidra, in the Packing House of the R. Day Co.

That he came by himself, arriving approximately at ten, he danced several times, and his attitude was of being in a normal state.

That he left at eleven, more or less.

That I knew about the robbery (sic) three days later because he told me when I visited the Presbyterian [Hos­pital].

That this is all I have to say and that what I have said is the truth and nothing but the truth.

A sworn statement dated February 2, 1932, by Francisco Matos, farm keeper of R. Day Plantation, establishes that Rhoads did not get drunk during the party. Matos declared that “a quite tall and fat American of some age” that turned out to be doctor Rhoads “arrived there by himself, at about 10:00 at night”; that “he was in normal conditions” and did not show “any signs whatsoever that he may have used alcohol at all”; that he behaved “correctly” and danced mainly with Miss Núñez, “with whom he seemed to have a close friendship”; that he, Rhoads, “left for San Juan at about eleven, more or less, when the dance  was over”,  and that,  he, Matos, had no knowledge of anything happening to his car there that night “and, much less, that anything was stolen from his car.” He added that “there were more than 20 cars and nobody complained about missing anything.”

In a memorandum to the Chief, Bureau of Detectives, with which he sent the sworn statements of Matos and Núñez, Police Sergeant Buenaventura Rosario said:

Miss. Núñez can give a more ample statement than the present one; she was willing to inform something else, but it seems that somebody insinuated to her that she abstain from extending herself with other details she knows pertaining to the doctor of reference. I believe that she could give a better statement before the Hon. Prosecutor that is dealing with this matter.[12]

Did anyone interfere with witness Núñez? Apparently, the Prosecutor or the Chief of Detectives didn’t want to know, for there is no reference whatsoever to this issue in the Justice Department’s documents pertaining to the investigation —which, by the way, took only two weeks.

In opting to assume the unsustainable position that Rhoads was a racist, all right, but not a murderer, Starr and the director and officials of the American Association for Cancer Research may have been inspired by the daring content of an essay by historian Susan Lederer, of Yale University School of Medicine, who asserts —also without any evidence whatsoever— that Rhoads's confession of murder indeed was a joke, no doubt about it. Lederer is so sure that Rhoads was only joking, that her essay is titled “‘Porto Ricochet’: Joking about Germs, Cancer, and Race Extermination in the 1930's”.[13]  In it, Lederer says at the outset that Rhoads’s confession of murder was no more than a “bizarre claim”. She then directs her readers to “brief discussions of the Rhoads letter” by two North American authors who scarcely know anything about the case: Truman R. Clark[14] and Laura Briggs.[15]

Before considering Clark’s and Briggs’s “discussions”, let’s take a look at Lederer’s essay on what she calls a “juicy scandal”.[16]

After a truncated quote of Rhoads’s letter —which she chooses to describe as “confidential”— Lederer asserts that "Both, the Beverley investigation and an internal investigation undertaken by the Rockefeller Foundation uncovered no evidence that Rhoads had in fact ‘exterminated’ any Puerto Ricans." There certainly is no basis for such assertion insofar as the Rockefeller Foundation did not undertake any kind of investigation. It only asked and received information from its own representative in Puerto Rico and from the very government that suppressed evidence material to the case. At any rate, an investigation by Rhoads's employer would have been as valueless as Beverley's. I see no reason for Lederer to substitute “killed” —the verb Rhoads used— with “exterminated,” but it certainly would be interesting to speculate.

Professor Lederer tells her readers, moreover, that:

a) "following the theft of several personal articles from his Ford Roadster, the Rockefeller researcher composed the letter to his friend" —regardless of the fact that no evidence was ever provided that Rhoads had been the victim of any theft;

b) that Rhoads "subsequently" identified his friend "Ferdie" as "Fred Stewart" although it was in the letter itself that he wrote "F. W. Stewart", without spelling out “Fred”;

c) that Rhoads left Puerto Rico "with the remaining American members of the commission", though he left all by himself and the others, except Castle, were said to have left previously. In fact, Flexner, who sustained frequent correspondence with Rhoads, wrote to him on December 14, 1931, and sent him and Castle “best greetings for Christmas.”[17] Judging by the fact that the sera and bone marrow biopsy material Rhoads sent on November 5 reached New York four days later, it seems safe to speculate that he arrived in New York on the same day Flexner wrote his letter, for he departed December 10. Thus, it seems that Flexner did not expect Rhoads to return any time soon.

d) that "Baldoni gave a copy of the letter to Albizu Campos", but it was the original he gave him;

e) that Presbyterian Hospital director William Galbreath had "made his own inquiries", while he just formulated questions here and there,[18] and that

f) Baldoni testified before prosecutor Quiñones, but there is no evidence that he did.

Furthermore, Lederer stresses the fact that Rafael Arroyo-Zeppendfelt “challenged” in a public letter “Baldoni’s graphic account of unsterilized needles and callous treatment of study participants” and gives full credibility to Castle’s general statement. Should this not be sufficient, Lederer makes reference to a translation of a press interview in which Galbreath “repeatedly made reference to the hospital’s registers as evidence that no excess deaths occurred during Rhoads’s tenure at the hospital and that the actual number of deaths [13] did not match the number of deaths he claimed to have caused [8].” The truth is that, although Galbreath reportedly did give that misleading information to El Imparcial,[19] not even the Prosecutor denied that, out of those who had died, the number of persons Rhoads said he had “killed off” do match the number of persons he had “examined”. (Lederer quotes elsewhere in her essay the Report in which the Prosecutor points this out).[20]

Galbreath made reference not only to the Hospital’s own register of deaths, but also to the municipal register. The problem with this is that autopsies at the time were not required by law and, to further complicate matters, Rhoads himself had made three autopsies and no autopsy was made to three others of those who died within the group of eight he had examined. Dr. Enrique Koppisch performed the autopsies of the other five, but neither he nor Rhoads were interrogated and, since there was no trial, they were not cross-examined.

The fiction that Rhoads was the victim of theft and that, for this reason, he decided to write his letter to “Ferdie”, is so meaningful to Lederer that she repeats it twice in one page.[21] The original tale claimed that Rhoads even tried to fight with some bystanders, very likely agricultural workers or just plain typical jíbaros whose custom was to carry under the arm a long, sharp machete with a shiny edge of about an eighth of an inch wide. As this was typical of the peasants, the Penal Code allowed it with the seldom observed provision that the machete be wrapped up.

“One of the Health Officers has just reported to me”, Payne told Howard, “that on the night of the Cidra party Dr. Rhoads made a disturbance when he found his car stripped and tires flat. He tried to fight some by-standers (sic), then went to the Police Station and made a disturbance there. This may throw light on the environment and stimuli which gave rise to the letter, but it should not be accepted at face value until I can investigate it,” said Payne.[22]

It is not known whether Payne investigated and reported his conclusions, but Lederer and other historians have chosen to believe the story even though Payne himself was not sure of its veracity.

In her conclusions, Lederer describes the confessed serial killer as “possessed of a healthy, masculine sense of humor” and adds that: “Rhoads’s joke about germs and cancer may have served an adaptive function in his situation, but its particular expression —involving germs and cancer— also suggests the historical contingency of the joke itself.” We know, of course, that Rhoads didn’t say anything in his letter about germs, so Lederer must be using some kind of literary license.

Moreover, Lederer insists, as did Starr after her, that Rhoads wrote his “joke” for “his personal pleasure and private consumption”[23] even though she knows that it was addressed to a person that actually existed: F. W. Stewart. I provided Lederer by electronic mail a draft of my comments on her essay and received some answers and the promise to respond later at length, but as I write this, I have not received her additional comments.

The fact that Starr, Lederer, Briggs, Clark, and others, omit the rest of Rhoads’s letter in their writings —as did the news media in the U. S., but not in Puerto Rico— deprives their readers of the opportunity to see the context of his confession and to realize that he makes no mention whatsoever of a theft that is supposed to have been what caused him to write the letter in the first place. When he was writing the letter, Rhoads was “disgusted” —to use his own word— but it was because of envy due to the appointment of Larry Smith. It may have been that anger what caused him to tell his friend about the crimes he had committed.

”Larry” Smith was —so it seems— Dr. Lawrence Weld Smith, a pathologist who graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1920.[24] From 1920 to 1922, Smith was instructor of pathology at Harvard and from 1922 to 1923 he taught pathology and bacteriology in the Philippines. He returned in 1923 to Harvard as faculty instructor until 1926. That year he was appointed assistant professor, a position he held until 1928. It should be noted that Dr. S. Burt Wolbach (wrongly referred to in transcripts of Rhoads’s letter as “Wallach”), graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1903 and was associated with Harvard University since 1905.[25] He was appointed Shattuck professor of pathological anatomy in 1922 and remained in that position until he retired in 1947. This places Wolbach and Smith as professors at Harvard at the same time —from 1920 to 1922 and from 1923 to 1928. In 1923, when Smith was appointed faculty instructor, Wolbach began at Harvard a study of vitamins and their relation with nutrition and in 1935 received the Mead-Johnson Award for his work on vitamin A.

Let’s turn to Dr. Truman R. Clark, who is among the worse sources ever —perhaps even the worst— on the Rhoads affair and whom Briggs mentions as one of those who “read parts” of her book. He is one of those researchers who have disseminated the convenient version according to which Rhoads’s confession of murder was only a “playful composition” written for his solace and entertainment, and that he “discarded” the note only to be found in a waste basket by one of his “servants”. But Clark was not to allow anyone ever to even come close to surpassing his creativity and asserted, in anticipation, that Rhoads “wrote fictitious letters expressing the anti-Puerto Rican sentiments of some continental residents he knew, intending to use the material some day in a novel”— a plot that escaped even Ivy Lee’s fertile imagination.

Briggs, on the other hand, makes reference in an extensive footnote to documentary sources at the Rockefeller Foundation Archive Center, and mentions the fact that a second letter “perhaps more damaging, was successfully suppressed by the Governor and Attorney General.” That’s the letter governor Beverley described as being “even worse” than the first and which Prosecutor Quiñones was supposed to have destroyed.


If readers follow Lederer’s advice, here is —with emphasis added— what they will find on the Rhoads letter in Briggs’s book, the research for which she says was “aided by grants from the Rockefeller Archives Center”:

Albizu’s Puerto Rican Nationalist Party emerged from obscurity in 1932. It brief­ly occupied center stage by accusing a Rockefeller Founda­tion doctor of gross medical malfeasance in perpetrating deadly experi­ments with cancer on the island. The evidence was a bitter, vicious letter written by North American physician Cornelius Rhoads in which he heaped abuse on Puerto Ricans as a group and claimed to have killed several “and injected cancer into seven more” in his capacity as a physician. Rhoads, with characteristic insensitivity, shrugged the letter off as a “joke.” Ultimately, an investigation of the health status of Rhoads’s pa­tients exonerated both the Rockefeller program and Rhoads (who went on to an illustrious career on the mainland, including the directorship of the Sloan-Kettering Institute and medical oversight of the now-infamous chemical weapons tests on unprotected U. S. soldiers during World War ll). Nevertheless, the incident generated considerable discussion in insular newspapers and (appropriately) cast a long shadow over the integrity of U. S. philanthropic efforts on the island and the benevolence of North Americans' intentions more broadly.4

To say at the outset, when making reference to the Rhoads case, that “Albizu*s Puerto Rican Nationalist Party emerged from obscurity in 1932", tends to suggest that Rhoads’s letter is something the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party must be grateful for. Historically, it is almost true that the Nationalist Party emerged from obscurity in 1932, but it is not so. The Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico —which is the literal name— was not Albizu’s party —at least, not yet— for he had assumed the presidency only in May, 1930 and, contrary to widespread belief, he was not its founder.

It is not correct either that the Nationalist Party “briefly occupied center stage” following the Rhoads scandal, for it actually remained in “center stage” for years to come as a result of its overt and clandestine actions against U. S. imperialism as a result of which he was jailed in the Atlanta federal penitentiary from June, 1937 to June, 1943; in district jail La Princesa in old San Juan from November 1950 to September 1953, and in the “state penitentiary” from March 1954 to December 1964. (He died on April 21, 1965).

What is most important, Albizu accused Rhoads of murder, not of mere “medical malfeasance”. This phrase can serve no other purpose than to turn attention away from the truth, strength­ening the unfounded version —adopted by the AACR— that Rhoads can only be accused of racism for having, as Briggs asserts, “heaped abuse on Puerto Ricans.”

Moreover, Briggs wants her readers to think of Rhoads’s letter not as a confession, but as a “claim”; as an allegation; and to view his work in Puerto Rico not as that of a scientific researcher that jeopardizes the lives of his unwitting subjects, but as a regular physician that is taking good care of patients —as some actually do.

Rhoads’s confession of multiple murders and attempted murders must not have been a very important “incident” as Briggs puts it, for she misquotes Rhoads as saying that he had “killed several” and had “‘injected cancer into seven more’.” In fact, he said he had “killed off 8" and had “transplanted cancer into several more”

It is incomprehensible, moreover, that Briggs considers the U. S. Government’s “investigation” credible in spite of the fact that she is aware of the suppression of evidence by the Governor and the Prosecutor.

Interviewed by electronic mail on her assessment of the case, after providing her a draft of my own statements, Briggs said:

I appreciate your sharing your forth­coming work with me. I'm sorry that you take exception to the way I framed the issue, and I appreciate your correction of any mistakes. I'm a little taken aback that you see me defending Rhoads or the Rockefeller Foundation; as I think the rest of the book makes clear, I certainly see U.S. and the RF's "benevolence" in Puerto Rico as a cover for imperialist policies. I actually went out of my way to mention Rhoads's letter because I thought it made that point clear; as you know, the book is not really about the RF or cancer, but about birth control and reproduction, and the inclusion of Rhoads is a bit of an aside. Here are my reasons for qualifying what otherwise might have been stronger statements:

   –According to the subsequent investigation by the RF, Rhoads did not have 8 patients who died of any cause, at least not that anyone could find, and because I read the documents pertaining to the investigation, I was persuaded that the records from the clinic were thoroughly re­viewed. To me, this cast doubt on the literal truth of the letter. I also read a great deal of unrelated correspondence about how much the New York RF staff disliked Rhoads, so I wasn't convinced that they would've engaged in a massive cover up on his behalf. –Cancerous cells are normal human cells that, for some reason that no one has yet fully been able to figure out, start growing wildly in places they are not meant to. Again, this made me qualify any statements about the precise, literal truth of the letter. However, I did think it spoke clearly to the man's morals. I included the discussion of the mustard gas experiments to make clear that he acted without ethical regard for human life, in Puerto Rico and elsewhere.[26]

The main points in Briggs’s explanation are the following:

1. The Rockefeller Foundation investigated the Rhoads case.

2. She read the documents pertaining to the Rockefeller Foundation’s investigation and realized that “the records from the clinic were thoroughly reviewed.”

3. The investigation revealed that “Rhoads did not have 8 patients who died of any cause, at least not that anyone could find.”

4. She “wasn't convinced” that the staff at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York “would've engaged in a massive cover up on his behalf” because they disliked him.

5. “No one has ever been able to induce cancer in human or animal subjects by injecting cancerous cells from another organism.”

Inasmuch as the Rockefeller Foundation conducted what may be considered a sort of administrative inquiry, but not a criminal investigation of its employee’s confession of murder or anything that could properly be considered as such, I asked Briggs which specific document of the ones she cites in her book led her to her conclusions. “What I can tell you about my source on that,” she said, “is that it's from the Rockefeller Archive Center, in their Rhoads file. I cite that file specifically in the footnote you mention, so you could get the exact location by looking at that. I don't have a copy of the document, but it's the result of the RF's investigation on Rhoads.”[27] Quite appropriately, there is no reference in Briggs’s cited endnote to any investigation by the Rockefeller Foundation, for there was no such investigation.

The Rockefeller Foundation indeed wouldn’t have “engaged in a massive cover up” on Rhoads’s behalf. It did it for its own benefit. In Payne’s letter to Howard on February 22, 1932, partially quoted above, he complained that “Dr. Rhoads did his cause and ours much harm with his explanation.” (Emphasis added). 

As to whether or not it’s possible to induce cancer through transplantation, the issue is immaterial to the Rhoads case because what’s important here is that he believed it could be done and repeatedly tried it out on unwitting subjects.

During a meeting in Chicago of the American College of Surgeons about the results of transplanting cancer to humans, a prominent physician said that a cancer patient allegedly allowed her doctors to graft her own living cancer cells under her skin because, it was claimed, she wanted to be “useful to humanity”. She was under treatment at Memorial Hospital in New York where she was operated on several times to have cancer tissues removed for culture in test tubes and laboratory animals. The doctor said that:

After the cancer cells had been growing for several months outside the patient’s body, the crucial test was made to see whether the cells were still human cancer cells. Proof of this came when they were back-transplanted under the patient’s skin. They grew actively and, when pieces of this cancer were removed for microscopic examination, they were seen to be identical with the other cells removed for examination so long ago.[28]

The prominent physician telling the story was none other than doctor Cornelius P. Rhoads in April 1954, while he was director of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research and Albizu was in prison in Puerto Rico. (That is, the killer was at large while his accuser was in prison.) Rhoads had been acting director of Memorial Hospital before 1943, so he may very well have been the researcher who performed that experiment and still others. “Ferdie” became acting director of Memorial Hospital in 1943, when Rhoads presumably joined the Army. Even if it turned out that the transplanted cells were rejected by the recipient, the experiment shows beyond doubt his disposition to cause harm to others in the name of science.#



In 2005, the authors of American Gunfight, so as not to be left behind, also portrayed Cornelius P. Rhoads as a brilliant medical doctor who, although clearly racist, had in no way committed the murders he spontaneously confessed. Although they mention The Unsolved Case of Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads in their bibliography, they chose to disregard the facts contained therein and preferred to repeat the falsehoods Lederer and others have joyfully propagated.


Pedro Aponte Vázquez

February, 2006


[1]. “A la sombra de la ciencia”, El Nuevo Día, Revista Domingo, January 5, 2003, pp. 6-7.

[2]. Ibid., p. 6.

[3]. Pedro Aponte Vázquez, “Más sobre el caso Rhoads,” Claridad, January 31-February 6, 2003, p. 36.

[4]. José Curet, “Aclaración,” Letter to the Editor, Claridad, February 7-13, 2003, p. 39.

[5]. Douglas Starr, “Revisiting a 1930's Scandal, AACR to rename a Prize” in Science, Vol.300,Num.5619,Issue of 25 April 2003, pp. 573_574 <http://www.sciencemag.org/


[6]. E-mail letter from the author to Starr, April 28, 2003.

[7]. E-mail from Starr to the author, April 28, 2003.

[8]. I have a different interpretation of the title. I think that the editor of Time was referring to the fact that news of the scandal reverberated throughout the island.

[9]. RAC.

[10].This date is confirmed in a letter from Payne to Howard, February 3, 1932. RAC.

[11]. La Correspondencia, March 29, 1932.

[12]. Document No. 525, Distrito de Cidra, P. R., February 2, 1931 [should be 1932] from B’Ventura Rosario, Sergeant, Insular Police, District Commander, to Chief, Detectives Bureau, in reference to Declaraciones Juradas Caso Vs. Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads. PRNA.

[13]. American Literary History. Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 720-746.

[14]. Puerto Rico and the United States. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973, p. 154.

[15]. Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U. S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. Berkley: University of California Press, 2002.

[16]. Lederer says that: “I did not characterize the Rhoads incident as a ‘juicy scandal’. That's how the incident was characterized in a newspaper clipping that I cite in my article. I believe I always used quotations when I referred to it as ‘juicy.’ That was a contemporary characterization and not my own. E-mail, Lederer to this author, June 10, 2003. But the fact is that the phrase in her essay has no quotation marks and no attribution.

[17]. Letter from Flexner to Rhoads. APS.

[18]. To this, Lederer responded: “I take seriously your points about the use of evidence, although I think you may be splitting hairs in some cases, i.e. in e) Galbreath made his own inquiries when you claim he made questions here and there. I did not state that he made a formal inquiry, merely that he asked questions (made his own inquiries). I will look over the material and respond at greater length. E-mail, June 10, 2003. The fact is that Lederer uses the concept of “inquiry” undistinctively. She refers to the so-called investigation by Garrido-Morales as a “medical inquiry” (p.731) and previously said (p.726) that “In addition to Governor Beverley’s investigation, W. R. Galbreath … made his own inquiries into the letter and the number of patient deaths” — not “about,” but “into.” She then adds that “The Rockefeller Foundation also instituted another investigation ….” Emphasis added.

[19]. ”Lo que dice el Director del Hospital Presbiteriano sobre el asunto del Dr. Rhoads”, El Imparcial, 26 enero 1932, pp. 1, 3.

[20]. The Quiñones Report, pp.5-6, PRNA, reproduced above: “The Prosecutor’s Report”. Lederer visited the RAC and was able to see there English translations of some of the documents, but did not have access to those at the PRNA. In addition, since her Spanish she says is “halting”, she had to have material translated to her. E-mail, June, 9, 2003.

[21]. Ibid, p. 731.

[22]. Letter dated in San Juan, February 22, 1932. (oZ43 Anemia), cited above. RAC.

[23]. Lederer, op. cit., p. 725.

[24]. The Jaques Cattell Press, op. cit.

[25]. “Dr. S. B. Wolbach, Pathologist, Dies”, The New York Times, March 20, 1954, p. 15:3.

[26]. E-mail, June 13, 2003.

[27]. E-mail, June, 19, 2003.

[28]. ”Patient Given Cancer,” Science News Letter, April 17, 1954, p. 245.