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“Porto Ricochet”: Joking about Germs, Cancer, and Race Extermination in the 1930s

“Porto Ricochet”: Joking about Germs, Cancer, and Race Extermination in the 1930s

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Published by Regina Emmanuelle
Puerto Rico and the Rhoads "joke" of extermination.
Puerto Rico and the Rhoads "joke" of extermination.

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Published by: Regina Emmanuelle on Apr 16, 2011
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“Porto Ricochet”: Jokingabout Germs, Cancer, andRace Extermination inthe1930s
Susan E. Lederer
“Porto Ricans,” complained Rockefeller Institute pathologistCornelius Packard Rhoads in November 1931, “are beyond doubtthe dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men everinhabiting this sphere. What the island needs is not public healthwork but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the pop-ulation. I have done my best to further the process of extermina-tion by killing o
8” (qtd. in “Porto Ricochet” 32). Initially writtenin a con
dential letter to a fellow researcher, Rhoads’s boast of killing Puerto Ricans appeared in
magazine in February1932 after Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Puerto Rican Na-tionalist Party, gained possession of the letter and publicized itscontents. Albizu Campos’s stunning charges of a “race extermina-tion plot” conducted under the auspices of a Rockefeller researchcommission prompted Puerto Rican governor James R. Beverleyto order an o
cial investigation of Rhoads’s bizarre claim.
Both the Beverley investigation and an internal investigationundertaken by the Rockefeller Foundation uncovered no evidencethat Rhoads had in fact “exterminated” any Puerto Ricans. Care-ful review of patient records at the Presbyterian Hospital in SanJuan, Puerto Rico, where Rhoads had performed his research re-vealed that no patients in the young pathologist’s care had diedunder suspicious circumstances. Moreover, the investigatorsproved unable to con
rm Rhoads’s other claim (one omitted in
s account) that he had transplanted cancer into several pa-tients. Governor Beverley reluctantly accepted Rhoads’s apology.The damaging letter, the young researcher explained, was notwhat it appeared. Rather than an account of real events, it was, heinsisted, a “fantastic and playful composition written entirely formy own diversion and intended as a parody on supposed attitudesof some American minds in Porto Rico” (“Porto Ricochet” 33).
With the help and media contacts of Ivy Lee, the Rockefellers’personal public relations expert, Rhoads’s version of the docu-ment—in which nothing “was ever intended to mean other thanthe opposite of what was stated”—appeared in
and in news-papers in New York and Chicago.
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 jokeis a play on form,” observed anthropologist Mary Douglas, “itbrings into relation disparate elements in such a way that one ac-cepted pattern is challenged by the appearance of another whichin some way was hidden in the
rst” (96). Viewed in this light,Rhoads’s playful composition involving germs, cancer, and raceextermination brings into relation several features of medical re-search that remain hidden or obscured in formal scienti
c papersand foundation reports.Rhoads’s joke illustrates some of the tensions and disloca-tions that accompanied the export of laboratory science into colo-nial settings. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuriesAmerican physicians and researchers played a critical role in theacquisition of new territories such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, thePhilippines, and the Hawaiian Islands. The medical imperial proj-ect involved several key features, including preserving the healthof colonizers faced with novel environmental and disease threatssuch as yellow fever and malaria, as well as the “civilizingmission” of westernizing “backward” people (Worboys 67–68).Closely linked to economic development, capital investment, andtrade, medical policies in the early twentieth century expanded toencompass not only the health of workers but also the welfare of women and children. Medical researchers increasingly appropri-ated these colonial subjects for their investigations. As MarcosCueto and other historians of imperial medicine have argued,only scant attention has been devoted to the local historical actorsin this process and to the dynamics of accommodation and ne-gotiation in putting imperial medicine (and imperial medicalresearch) into place. In the Rockefeller anemia studies, relation-ships in the laboratory between the Puerto Rican technicians andsecretaries and American physicians—Rhoads in particular—proved volatile.The controversy over Rhoads’s letter evokes the racializeddimensions of interwar medical science. The precipitating factorso
ered in
magazine’s account as explanation for the “portoricochet” featured the ingratitude of the patients in the anemiastudies (“balky Puertoriquenos”) and the self-serving behavior of the young “Puertoriqueno” laboratory technician Luis Baldoni,
American Literary History
who found Rhoads’s discarded letter and ran with it to the“shrewd politico” Albizu Campos (32). The very words “portoricochet” echoed an unresolved tension in Puerto Rican–Ameri-can relations, the issue of how the island and its inhabitantsshould be identi
ed. Naming, as historian Gervasio Luis Garciareminds us, constituted a form of domination: “[T]he imperial ap-petite was not sated until it had appropriated every bit of the is-land, even its name” (15). From 1898, when the US acquired theisland at the end of the Spanish-American War, until May 1932,when President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional bill estab-lishing the name Puerto Rico into law, Americans had imposedthe anglicized spelling Porto Rico.
The Rhoads incident also o
ers an unusually revealing win-dow on the early history of public relations and “spin” in Ameri-can medical science. The
article and its embrace of the jokeextends Marcel La Follette’s observation that popular images of science in the 1930s re
ected “unquali
ed trust” in scienti
c judg-ment and scienti
c character (139–40). This cultural authoritystemmed in no small measure from the laboratory triumphs of the1920s that produced insulin and the promise of more medical ad-vances to come. Even though Rockefeller administrators both pri-vately and publicly conceded that his jokes about killing PuertoRican patients and transplanting cancer may have been in poortaste, they considered Rhoads so promising a researcher thatnothing should interfere with his career, especially a private follythat unfortunately became public.Finally, in Rhoads’s fantasy, social distance and racial di
er-ence could be resolved through medical means. Like scores of American state legislatures which had enacted laws for the eugenicsterilization of the “defective,” Rhoads envisioned a medical solu-tion for the “degenerate Porto Rican.” In his fantasy, the proce-dure—transplanting cancer—would exterminate a “degenerate”race rather than merely limit its procreative powers. The idea thatcancer could be transmitted through surgical means or via a mi-crobe or virus surfaced repeatedly in the twentieth century in bothexpert and lay circles. In 1925, reports in the British medical jour-nal
of a virus that caused cancer prompted intense mediaattention and a deluge of requests for interviews with Rockefellerresearcher Francis Peyton Rous, whose 1911 paper on chickensarcoma virus had inspired the new British studies (see Patterson98–99). Although these claims were quickly relegated to the fringeof orthodox medical thinking about cancer’s cause (only to besubsequently resurrected in the 1950s), popular beliefs in cancer’scontagiousness—cancer houses, cancer clusters, and familial can-cers—persisted. Rhoads’s medical defenders ridiculed the belief 
Joking about Race Extermination

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