Newfoundland had sad connection to experiments on aboriginals

Steve Bartlett
Published on July 22, 2013
A nurse takes a blood sample from a boy at the Indian School, Port Alberni, B.C., in 1948, during the time when nutritional experiments were being conducted on students there and five other residential schools.
— Photo by The Canadian Press/ho-Library and Archives Canada

One of those appalling nutrition tests conducted by national experts and the feds between 1942 and 1952 saw subjects fed a product from this province.

And the “Newfoundland flour mix” consumed at an Ontario residential school didn’t exactly yield desired results.

It provided no obvious benefits to the students at St. Mary’s School in Kenora and their rates of iron deficiency (anemia) soared.

This information comes from an academic article that created controversy and headlines last week.

Ian Mosby, a nutritional historian at Guelph University, found documents detailing how scientists and federal departments conducted nutritional tests at six residential schools across Canada and at some native reserves without the participants’ consent.

Mosby says his article “argues that — during the war and early postwar period — bureaucrats, doctors, and scientists recognized the problems of hunger and malnutrition, yet increasingly came to view aboriginal bodies as ‘experimental materials’ and residential schools and aboriginal communities as kinds of ‘laboratories’ that they could use to pursue a number of different political and professional interests.”

Yup. Hundreds of hungry children and adults unknowingly involved were human guinea pigs.

Mosby’s findings have sparked outrage across the country, and rightly so.

Some subjects were fed supplements, while others were given nothing as part of a control group — even though researchers knew their diets were lacking and their bodies deficient.

The researcher says the Newfoundland flour mix was used at St. Mary’s School because riboflavin deficiency was common there.

The mix contained added thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and bonemeal.

It “could not be legally sold outside of Newfoundland under Canada’s laws against food additives.”

The rise in anemia that accompanied consumption prompted head researcher Lionel Bradley Pett to present a paper to the American Institute of Nutrition in 1952.

It was titled “Development of Anemia on Newfoundland Enriched Flour.”

Although scientifically unproven that the flour caused anemia levels to rise, Pett noted “the fact remains that no beneficial effect was observed from the iron in enriched flour.”

He suggested more research was required, but admitted “such studies are often omitted or are confined to certain animal experiments rather than to humans.”

Mosby argues the anemia “seems to have simply highlighted one of the main barriers to the kinds of human experiments being advocated by Pett — when confronted with the possible risks, few would consciously choose to allow themselves or their children to take part in such a study.”

No kidding.

According to the Canadian National Millers Association website, research done in Newfoundland during the Second World War showed a deficiency in iron, calcium and B vitamins in the diet here.

“The enrichment of flour in Newfoundland rapidly cleared up the diet deficiency problems on the island,” the site says.

Hopefully, people here — who were in hard times — knew they were part of an experiment, one that may explain why the researchers tried the mix at the Kenora school.

This all leaves some big questions about Newfoundland flour mix.

Did it have an impact on local anemia rates and did anyone ever realize it? And have there been any long-lasting health effects on the locals who ate it?

An interview has been requested with Mosby to see if he knows more about the flour, and some local researchers will be getting a call too.

We need to know more about this.


If you know anything about Newfoundland flour mix, email Steve Bartlett at On Twitter, he’s @TelegramSteve.