Harold Marmon had always been small for his age. When he was 14, his parents were worried enough to enroll him in a growth study at Rockefeller University Hospital in Manhattan, just across the river from their home in New Jersey. It was led by Reginald Archibald, a doctor and scientist at one of the world’s most prestigious research institutions.
Marmon remembers walking into a foreboding building with his mother, who was told to stay behind in the waiting room. Inside the examination room, a gray-haired, white-coated Archibald was waiting for the boy, alone. In his soft voice, he told Marmon to undress head to toe.
Then, Marmon recalled, the doctor began touching and rubbing his genitals. Archibald took close-up photos of his penis and asked him to pose for others while standing against a wall, hands open and legs slightly apart.
Marmon left with a prescription for a hormone therapy that would ostensibly make him taller. He would return the next year for another exam, then tell his parents, without elucidating why, that he wanted to drop out.
That was 1975. He would not think or speak of the study for decades, until he came across a New York Times story in October of last year, when Rockefeller publicly acknowledged that Archibald — who died in 2007 — had engaged in “certain inappropriate conduct.” The elite university is still investigating the doctor, and has reportedly contacted 1,000 former patients to ask if they have information to share.
At least 150 of Archibald’s former patients are now consulting with lawyers to get justice for the abuse they remember from decades ago. Some of these men are also calling for Rockefeller to reevaluate Archibald’s scientific legacy.
Archibald published at least 19 papers about biochemistry and childhood growth, and a BuzzFeed News literature review found at least three with photos of naked children or close-up penises, as well as a fourth with X-rays of children’s hands. Victims say the scientific record should somehow reflect that the doctor took advantage of research participants — a severe violation of research ethics, not to mention a criminal act.
“Everything is completely discredited because of the amount of abuse of all these children, so how can anything be taken seriously?” Marmon, now 60 and living in Lewes, Delaware, told BuzzFeed News. At 5’5”, he also suspects the therapy made little if any difference. He said he is not one of the children depicted in the three studies, but could have been, having posed for pictures just like theirs.
“Our opinion is, based upon all of the evidence that these people were victims of abuse, that should be noted in some way in this research because it’s very difficult to separate the person from the research itself,” said Paul Mones, an attorney in Los Angeles who, along with New York–based Mariann Wang, is representing Marmon and other former patients. “Something should be done. Some notation should happen.”
After being contacted for this story, the organization behind one of Archibald’s studies is planning to make some kind of notation. A second journal has removed another study from its website and is evaluating it for ethical issues. Other journals said they had no plans to take action.
A Rockefeller spokesperson declined to comment on Archibald’s studies or whether the institution would be asking journals to make updates. The National Institutes of Health, which funded some of Archibald’s work, said it was not in a position to investigate his conduct.
There is precedent for this sort of historical correction in science, but it’s complicated. Some papers are retracted for ethical transgressions alone, such as a 2012 study that fed genetically engineered rice to children. It was pulled after allegations that scientists fabricated ethics approval documents and failed to obtain informed consent from the subjects’ parents. In another withdrawn study, about treating asthma with antioxidants, the patients never consented to participating in the study.
But plenty of other work based on abhorrent methods has never been formally corrected. When the US government studied syphilis in largely poor black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, from 1932 to 1972, for example, it withheld effective treatment from them, causing needless suffering and death. After a public outcry, the government changed its policies to better protect research subjects, and decades later, President Bill Clinton apologized. Yet to this day, many Tuskegee Study articles have not been corrected or annotated, and are still cited by contemporary scientists. So, too, is the work of Bruno Bettelheim, the famed child psychologist who was posthumously accused of physically and emotionally terrorizing students.
But now the #MeToo movement is prompting national conversations — and concrete policy changes — that did not seem possible before. In Archibald’s case, those changes may come from New York lawmakers, who just significantly extended New York’s statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse lawsuits, and from the scientific community.
Bioethicists told BuzzFeed News that the affected journals and Rockefeller have a responsibility to address the allegations in the literature somehow — if not through outright retractions, then at least by adding an editor’s note to his studies or running editorials about the controversy. These decisions won’t be simple, particularly because some of the journals no longer exist, many of his coauthors are dead, and it may be hard to prove that any particular study relied on abused participants. But the institutions must try, they said.
“Institutions have to own their history, which is really painful,” said Jonathan Moreno, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. “They’ve got to own the institutional memory, and it often isn’t pleasant.”
Archibald began working at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in 1940, as a junior investigator in his early thirties. He worked his way up at Rockefeller for most of his career (other than a brief stint at Johns Hopkins University), becoming professor emeritus in 1980.
In October of last year, Rockefeller revealed that it had received an allegation against the doctor in 2004, three years before he died, and responded by notifying the Manhattan district attorney and hiring the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton. Its investigation unearthed other complaints that had been filed as long ago as the 1990s. But the firm’s findings — that “certain allegations” against Archibald were “credible” — were never made public until last year, when a brand-new allegation spurred another internal investigation and even more horror stories. “The Hospital and University deeply regret pain and suffering caused to any of Dr. Archibald’s former patients,” the institution said in an Oct. 5 statement.
Archibald’s emeritus status has been rescinded, and all mentions of him scrubbed from the hospital’s website. The university has set up a fund for counseling for victims and says it’s added safeguards to prevent such incidents from happening again.
Five former patients told BuzzFeed News that the revelations have forced them to confront traumatizing memories suppressed for decades. They are reckoning with how these visits may have shaped the trajectory of their lives — their health, their careers, the relationships they formed or didn’t. And they wonder how legitimate Archibald’s science ever was.
One patient in his fifties, who wished to be identified only by his first name, Arthur, recalled being masturbated as well as told to masturbate by Archibald, who then collected his semen in a test tube. “I don’t know why I allowed this to happen, but I guess I believed him that it was part of a study,” he said.
No one could have guessed the direction that research would take by reading Rockefeller’s bare-bones consent forms, which one patient shared with BuzzFeed News.
“I hereby give consent to have photographs taken of myself, only for medical and professional purposes,” one form stated. Read another: “I hereby consent that any routine treatment and diagnostic procedure, which may be deemed necessary, may be performed upon me,” including “physical examination” and “administration of generally accepted medication.”
Despite visiting Archibald’s clinic for years, the men said they never knew what resulted from his research until BuzzFeed News asked them to review a handful of his studies. The papers are about rare conditions related to stunted growth, like spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia tarda, Aarskog–Scott syndrome, and gonadal dysgenesis.
None of the men recognized themselves in the pictures, but four out of the five recalled being photographed in similar ways. Looking at the studies conjured intense feelings of pain and humiliation, they said.
For Martin Cohen, 75, they “triggered a vague memory of myself in that position wearing only socks with legs spread feeling exposed and anxious,” he said.
He and other men remember a doctor who came off as an impressive authority figure to them and their parents, but exploited his power behind closed doors. Cohen believes Archibald “used the ‘research’ to justify sexual interest in children,” he said by email.
As a young basketball player growing up in Queens, Cohen was at first excited by the possibility of getting taller when his mother signed him up for the study. But during the visits, he was told to undress and stand between the doctor’s legs. While Archibald asked about his health, he would be fondling him, Cohen recalls. He doesn’t remember orgasming, but his medical records, which he has since obtained from Rockefeller, show that he ejaculated on one occasion. On another visit, the doctor measured his penis’s length and circumference.
“I was 14 years old, beginning puberty, and the stimulation felt good, but it also felt extremely wrong,” Cohen said by phone. “My brain would sort of go on freeze. I wouldn’t even know how to process it. And then on top of it, he is a man and I like girls, so it was confusing even more so, because you wonder about your own sexuality, getting stimulated by a man.”
Cohen visited Rockefeller more than a dozen times between 1957 and 1960. He never told his family about what Archibald had done. As the visits went on, he began cutting class and hanging with the wrong crowd in high school — behavior that was likely a response to the abuse, he now thinks. Eventually he got back on track, and discovered an interest in counseling that led to a PhD in psychology. Today he runs a private practice in Los Angeles, where he specializes in treating people with trauma.
“I never really understood why they were drawn to me or why I was drawn to them, and I think now, looking at it, I think that population recognizes that I kind of get them,” he said.
Matt, 52, of Studio City, California, visited Archibald annually between ages 3 and 15. This experience, he said, rewired his understanding of the boundaries between adults and children. Later in his adolescence, he was molested by an older woman who was a caretaker. Recently he has begun to wonder whether Archibald’s abuse left him susceptible to being taken advantage of.
He has never had a long-term relationship, which he attributes to deep-rooted trust issues. “Most of the women I’ve dated want children, and I feel like I wouldn’t want to bring children into the world because they’re not safe,” he said. “That’s something I can’t shake.”
John Cito, 57, blames Archibald not just for abusing him, but for putting him on a testosterone-based treatment that was supposed to help him grow. After taking it on and off from ages 6 to 17, Cito went on to develop sleep apnea and a host of benign tumors, which he believes the therapy directly or indirectly caused. (Research does suggest links between testosterone and sleep apnea as well as the growth of some cancers.)
He is angry that Rockefeller never again asked about his health. “You don’t do a study and never do follow-ups,” he said.
Brief examinations of genitalia are necessary to evaluate children’s growth, pediatric endocrinologists say. But to them, the blatant misbehavior alleged at Rockefeller reaffirms the importance of ensuring this practice doesn’t exploit vulnerable patients.
“The field is sensitive to this already, and Archibald’s case highlights the reason for us to be sensitive to it,” said Philip Zeitler, president of the Pediatric Endocrine Society. “What he did was wrong.” He said that by the 1970s, the idea of a doctor examining a patient without any family present had fallen far out of mainstream practice. A parent — or a staff member, if a child prefers — should always be in the room.
Any photos should be taken for an explicit educational or diagnostic reason, with the parents’ consent and patient privacy top of mind, said Dorit Koren, a pediatric endocrinologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and cochair of the Pediatric Endocrine Society’s ethics special interest group, though she was not speaking on behalf of the group.
Unlike in some of Archibald’s studies, in which children’s faces are fully shown and initials used, “there is no description that can lead back to the patient,” Koren said. “The child does not spend an extended period of time fully nude.”
Cito, for one, believes there isn’t any point in revisiting the studies: “There’s nothing you can do now that they’re published.”
But the others say they want to see their suffering noted, somehow, in the scientific literature.
“At a minimum, the photos should be deleted if that’s at all possible as I don’t see them as germane to the articles,” Cohen said.
“I think there should be a note or there should be an addendum to the research that was done, definitely,” Marmon said.
At least two journals are doing just that.
In a March of Dimes–sponsored journal called Birth Defects: Original Article Series, Archibald wrote in 1975 about four brothers with a genetic growth disorder, three of whom had their genitals featured in close-up photos. A March of Dimes spokesperson told BuzzFeed News it was not possible to retract the study in print, since the journal stopped publishing in 1995, but confirmed that the organization would be taking action.
The March of Dimes “takes these abhorrent allegations very seriously and is exploring how a retraction, disclaimer, or another form of warning may be added to digital copies of the study,” the spokesperson said.
In 1965, another journal, Radiology, published a study of Archibald’s that contained pictures of naked boys. After receiving inquiries from BuzzFeed News, it posted a notice that its ethics committee was evaluating the article “for issues regarding a Rockefeller University investigation.” The journal also removed the article from the website, “due to the sensitive nature of the investigation of Dr. Archibald and out of concern for the privacy of the patients,” a spokesperson said.
That study was partly funded by the National Institutes of Health. A spokesperson said that because the study was published decades ago, Archibald has died, and any relevant NIH records have likely been long destroyed, the NIH “is limited in its ability” to review the research.
Other publications are waiting for more information. In 1959, the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism published a study of Archibald’s that included X-ray photographs of children’s hands. Publisher Richard O’Grady told BuzzFeed News that the journal was “deeply disturbed by the allegations” and was monitoring Rockefeller’s investigation, but did not indicate it would take other action.
Yet another journal that said it had no plans to look into the matter was the American Journal of Roentgenology (formerly the American Journal of Roentgenology, Radium Therapy, and Nuclear Medicine). In 1963, it published an Archibald study about skeletal abnormalities in patients with developmental disorders, featuring body-length pictures of a naked teenage girl and a nearly nude adult woman. A spokesperson said that the publication was not aware of “specific accusations of misconduct” about the study, but “should more information emerge, the journal will evaluate as appropriate.”
The Committee on Publication Ethics, which sets ethical guidelines for scholarship, recommends a study be retracted if it “reports unethical research.” In contrast, an editor’s note or “expression of concern” is warranted for “inconclusive evidence of research or publication misconduct by the authors.”
Withdrawing Archibald’s studies altogether may not be feasible, said Steven Joffe, a professor of pediatrics and medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He said that would likely require clear evidence that the science of the studies was flawed, or that the specific patients identified in them were mistreated.
But Rockefeller should take the lead in updating the record in other ways, he said. The university could encourage journals to append notes about the allegations to Archibald’s articles. Ideally, Joffe says, Rockefeller would write to each journal’s editor, describing the facts and accusations to the best of its knowledge, and request that its letter be published.
“Of course the letter would be vetted by Rockefeller’s lawyers, and would be influenced by the institution’s legal concerns, but I still favor this as the way to get the word out,” he said.
“To the extent somebody has a legacy,” he added, “their legacy should reflect information that comes out about them later or comes out about them after their death.”
Rockefeller may soon also have to answer for Archibald’s deeds in court. Under current New York law, Archibald’s former patients missed their window to sue the hospital decades ago. But that could change with New York’s new Child Victims Act, which after being signed into law will give victims a one-year window to file civil claims against their attackers and institutions, even if the claims have passed the statute of limitations.
Just before the bill passed by overwhelming margins in the New York Senate and Assembly in late January, one of its sponsors, state Sen. Brad Hoylman, told BuzzFeed News that the Rockefeller case was “such a violation of trust that it almost defies description.”
“Dr. Archibald was a monster, plain and simple, and it’s very upsetting to think that he got away with it,” Hoylman said. “That’s what we need to change.”
If Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has signaled support for the legislation in the past, does sign the bill into law, there will be a six-month period before litigation can be filed.
“We have the right to sue and we’ll pursue all our remedies,” said Mones, one of the attorneys representing dozens of Archibald’s former patients. He also suspects that other Archibalds and Rockefellers will emerge. “I think one of the areas this case will open up is for patients who did not really understand the appropriate medical protocols at the time and will realize there are doctors who harmed them in the past,” he said.
Half a century ago, a confused and embarrassed Arthur posed for pictures in Archibald’s examination room. Recently, he was relieved to learn that those snapshots hadn’t ended up in the doctor’s studies for all to see. But they aren’t in his medical records that Rockefeller recently gave to him either. He also doesn’t know what happened to all the test tubes of semen that Archibald collected.
The possibility that they are still out there, somewhere, haunts him. “What did he do with all these samples and all these photographs?” ●