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The horrifying letter in which a scientist "confessed" to murder

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Cornelius P. Rhoads was a well-regarded cancer researcher, that some people to this day suspect of murder. The suspicion sprang from a letter that Rhoads himself wrote one night when he was drunk.

Dr. Cornelius Rhoads had a long and successful career. An oncologist, he investigated treatments for anemia before going on to head a memorial hospital where he helped shape the newly-emerging science of chemotherapy on cancer patients. His studies were so productive that an anonymous donor endowed an annual award to be given out to young researchers who make significant contributions to the treatment of cancer.


The award was renamed when a scientist going through Dr. Rhoads' papers stumbled across a scandal. That scandal, in the early 1930s, caused Rhoads to all but flee Puerto Rico under suspicion of multiple murder. Rhoads was down there investigating certain types of anemia as part of the Rockefeller Anemia Commission. He was not pleased with his situation, especially one night after he left a party drunk and found that his car had been vandalized. His response was to head to his office and write to a colleague, a cancer researcher in New York. The letter started out with complaints about another colleague getting a job that Rhoads had evidently wanted, then went on to talk about possible plum jobs he could have.


Then Rhoads apparently lost his mind, writing, "They [Puerto Ricans] are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere. It makes you sick to inhabit the same island with them. They are even lower than Italians. What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might then be livable. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting cancer into several more. The latter has not resulted in any fatalities so far... The matter of consideration for the patients' welfare plays no role here — in fact all physicians take delight in the abuse and torture of the unfortunate subjects."

When you write a letter like that, it's best not to end it with "sincerely," but that's exactly what Rhoads did. He left it on his desk, where it was seen by a colleague the next morning. The colleague made copies of the letter and went public with them. Soon the letter was published in newspapers and to be discussed at the Puerto Rican Medical Association. The Rockefeller Foundation, and the newly-appointed governor of Puerto Rico, set up investigations, but Rhoads had already left for New York.

There are two different points of view on this story. One is taken by people who believe that Rhoads did 'sincerely' admit to murder, and that the 13 people who died under his care were killed either by Rhoads directly, or fell victim to cancer cells he had transplanted into them. The other point of view was taken by the Rockefeller public relations firm, which said that he was writing a "fantastic and playful" note for his own amusement. It was a satire, skewering a typical racist's views on Puerto Ricans and meant to express the opposite of what it actually said.

Rhoads was not the first to take refuge in the works of Jonathan Swift, nor would he be the last. Given the circumstances of the letter, and a look at his wording, the satire defense doesn't work. Still, the letter did not seem to hurt his career in America. It helped that an investigation found no evidence that any of the patients who died under his care seemed to have suffered from abuse or neglect. Most likely, the person Rhoads hurt most was himself, and his reputation.


[Via The Rhoads Not Given, Democratic Underground.]