American Literary History 14.4 (2002) 720-746
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Joking about Germs, Cancer, and Race Extermination in the 1930s
Susan E. Lederer
"Porto Ricans," complained Rockefeller Institute pathologist Cornelius Packard Rhoads in November 1931, "are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere. What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8" (qtd. in "Porto Ricochet" 32). Initially written in a confidential letter to a fellow researcher, Rhoads's boast of killing Puerto Ricans appeared in Time magazine in February 1932 after Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, gained possession of the letter and publicized its contents. Albizu Campos's stunning charges of a "race extermination plot" conducted under the auspices of a Rockefeller research commission prompted Puerto Rican governor James R. Beverley to order an official investigation of Rhoads's bizarre claim. 1
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. Careful review of patient records at the Presbyterian Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Rhoads had performed his research revealed that no patients in the young pathologist's care had died under suspicious circumstances. Moreover, the investigators proved unable to confirm Rhoads's other claim (one omitted in Time's account) that he had transplanted cancer into several patients. Governor Beverley reluctantly accepted Rhoads's apology. The damaging letter, the young researcher explained, was not what it appeared. Rather than an account of real events, it was, he insisted, a "fantastic and playful composition written entirely for my own diversion and intended as a parody on supposed attitudes of some American minds in Porto Rico" ("Porto Ricochet" 33). [End Page 720] With the help and media contacts of Ivy Lee, the Rockefellers' personal public relations expert, Rhoads's version of the document—in which nothing "was ever intended to mean other than the opposite of what was stated"—appeared in Time and in newspapers in New York and Chicago. 2
This essay explores Rhoads's explanation that his fantasy of exterminating the Puerto Rican population was all a "joke," merely a playful parody misunderstood by the islanders. "A joke is a play on form," observed anthropologist Mary Douglas, "it brings into relation disparate elements in such a way that one accepted pattern is challenged by the appearance of another which in some way was hidden in the first" (96). Viewed in this light, Rhoads's playful composition involving germs, cancer, and race extermination brings into relation several features of medical research that remain hidden or obscured in formal scientific papers and foundation reports.
Rhoads's joke illustrates some of the tensions and dislocations that accompanied the export of laboratory science into colonial settings. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries American physicians and researchers played a critical role in the acquisition of new territories such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and the Hawaiian Islands. The medical imperial project involved several key features, including preserving the health of colonizers faced with novel environmental and disease threats such as yellow fever and malaria, as well as the "civilizing mission" of westernizing "backward" people (Worboys 67-68). Closely linked to economic development, capital investment, and trade, medical policies in the early twentieth century expanded to encompass not only the health of workers but also the welfare of women and children. Medical researchers increasingly appropriated these colonial subjects for their investigations. As Marcos Cueto and other historians of imperial medicine have argued, only scant attention has been devoted to the local historical actors in this process and to the dynamics of accommodation and negotiation in putting imperial medicine (and imperial medical research) into place. In the Rockefeller anemia studies, relationships in the laboratory between the Puerto Rican technicians and secretaries and American physicians—Rhoads in particular—proved volatile...