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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Uncle Sam's 'Body Snatchers'

NEW YORK -- At the height of the Cold War during the 1950s, U.S. scientists investigated the consequences of atomic tests by "body snatching," as one leader of the project termed it -- obtaining bones and whole bodies of deceased urban poor from around the world.

Under a top-secret Atomic Energy Commission biophysics program dubbed "Project Sunshine," hundreds of cadavers were collected for radiation experiments, some of which were done at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, a facility owned by Columbia University.

The bones were analyzed for strontium 90, derived from hydrogen bomb fallout. And New York geochemist Laurence Kulp, leader of the project, says now that the results helped bring about a ban on surface atom bomb tests in 1963.

Project documents were released this week by the presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. The committee declassified the minutes of a biophysics panel meeting held Jan. 18, 1955, that include a seemingly ghoulish reference to the struggle to find human bones for the tests.

"So human samples are of prime importance and if anybody knows how to do a good job of body snatching, they will be serving their country," AEC Commissioner Willard Libby said at that meeting.

Libby, a chemist who received the 1961 Nobel prize in chemistry, added: "I don't know how to snatch bodies. In the original study ... we hired an expensive law firm to look up the law of body snatching ... It is not very encouraging. It shows you how very difficult it is going to be to do legally."

"It's so medically reprehensible that one could say it doesn't even need comment," Columbia University ethicist Dr. David Rothman said Wednesday. "The notion of snatching a body is in violation of any concept of respect for the dead."

In an interview Wednesday, Kulp, retired and living near Seattle, said hindsight was leading current investigators to conclusions that were off the mark. "I think the whole thing was a tongue-in-cheek job, Bill Libby talking about 'body snatching."

Libby testified before Congress in August 1957, saying that children were absorbing the deadly strontium 90 at alarming rates. He predicted that if atmospheric nuclear bomb tests continued, children's bone radioactivity levels might rise to dangerous heights. Kulp insisted this week that the majority of bones came from cadavers that had already been used in medical schools.