World War II medical experiments make heroes behind bars

Maurice N. Winslow took a leave of absence from his job as prison superintendent to serve in the Army during World War II. But he wasn’t the only man from Norfolk to contribute to the war effort.

Winslow’s collection of records includes a 12-page booklet, “They Did Their Share, 1942-1945.” The report, written by eight inmates on Norfolk’s War Effort Committee, provides long-forgotten details of what the institution’s prisoners did while the country was at war.

The report states that inmates worked in industry shops that produced Navy hats, tires, and other war supplies. They donated blood. They bought war bonds. They planted Victory Gardens. They crafted cribbage and checker boards for soldiers.

Advertisement—Continue Reading Below

At least 60 inmates signed up to join the armed forces or the merchant marine, and seven of them were killed in action. And even more volunteered to serve their country — and risk their lives — as human guinea pigs in medical experiments.

The committee’s report, published at the end of World War II, refers to once-secret medical experiments conducted at the Norfolk prison in September 1942. At the time, the US Navy and scientists from Harvard Medical School were trying to develop a blood substitute that could be used to treat wounded soldiers on the front lines. Researchers wanted to test a protein taken from the blood of cattle on human subjects. If the experiment worked, it would be a major breakthrough for battlefield medicine.

The researchers turned to the state prison system to find volunteers. They didn’t promise the prisoners any reward, other than the knowledge they would be providing a “vital patriotic service” to their country. At Norfolk, more than 200 young men stepped forward and signed liability waivers to participate. Out of that group, 64 were injected with the experimental serum, according to the committee’s report.

The experiment did not turn out as well as the scientists had hoped. The Boston Globe reported at the time that Wilfred J. Malloy, a 29-year-old convicted armed robber from South Boston, suffered a serious reaction and had to be hospitalized. Other inmates also became ill.

The experiment proved fatal for one of the prisoners.

Arthur St. Germain (inset) was 27 years old when he died at the prison in November 1942. Originally from Haverhill, he had served 18 months of a 5- to 7-year sentence. After his death, he became known to inmates as the “Prison Martyr,” according to Globe reports.

In December 1942, St. Germain was granted a pardon posthumously. The Globe reported that Arthur T. Lyman, the state’s Department of Correction commissioner, presented a copy of the pardon to his mother, Beulah St. Germain.

According to the Norfolk War Effort Committee’s report, the inmates who were willing to risk their lives were not carrying lengthy sentences — 90 percent of them were eligible for release within the next two years. Amazingly enough, when research scientists went back and asked them whether they would volunteer again, all but eight were willing to continue the tests, the report said.

In 1943, Norfolk inmates took part in a war bond campaign organized by the federal government, in which penal institutions competed for the right to name a new Army bomber.

Norfolk inmates spent $7,187 on war bonds to win the “Buy a Bomber’’ contest, according to the committee’s report .

They christened their aircraft “The Spirit of St. Germain,” in honor of their fallen comrade, and sent a $100 war bond to St. Germain’s mother in Haverhill.

When World War II ended, 14 inmates who volunteered for the blood-substitute tests were still behind bars. Norfolk’s War Effort Committee urged officials to consider releasing them early.

In its report, the committee wrote: “As time goes on, there is a general feeling that the inmates who participated in the blood plasma experiment will be forgotten men . . .  we urge that some official recognition on the part of the Commonwealth be made for all these men. Except for Arthur St. Germain, who was posthumously pardoned, the rest have never received any official acknowledgment of their patriotism from Massachusetts.”

Share