The Nefarious Dr. Rhoads
In the middle of the electoral campaign, Puerto Rico became the site of a medical scandal brought to public attention by Don Pedro. On November 12, 1931 the young nationalist Luis Baldoni Martínez reported early to his job as a laboratory assistant in the Presbyterian Hospital located in San Juan and noticed an envelope placed next to a microscope. Deciding to open it, he found a letter written and signed by Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, a physician at the hospital working as part of a research project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to investigate anemia and sprue in Puerto Rico.
In the letter, Dr. Rhoads expressed racist views towards Puerto Ricans, saying, “They 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.” He then made the following nefarious admission: “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.”
Holding onto the letter for over a month, Luis decided he had to make its contents known. On January 2, 1932 he went before a notary public and signed an affidavit in connection with his discovery of the letter and then brought both to the Nationalist Party. Immediately recognizing the significance of the letter, Don Pedro quickly went about publicizing it — he sent copies of both the letter and the affidavit to the newspapers of Puerto Rico, foreign governments, and the Vatican. The newspaper El Día also submitted the documents provided by the Party to the Attorney General. When news that an investigation had been ordered by then-Governor of Puerto Rico James Beverley was announced in The New York Times, Dr. Rhoads wrote to him expressing that the letter was “a fantastic and playful composition written entirely for my own diversion and intended as a parody.”
The prosecutor assigned to the case, José Ramón Quiñones, commented that Dr. Rhoads is either “mentally ill or unscrupulous” and provided a report to the governor confirming that, in the experiments performed as part of the Rockefeller Foundation-funded research, thirteen people had died, eight of them having been treated by Dr. Rhoads. Nevertheless, Dr. Rhoads was cleared of all charges the following month on February 14, bringing many to question the loyalties and legitimacy of the justice system in Puerto Rico. Dr. Rhoads would later receive awards and acclaim for establishing chemical weapons labs for the U.S. Army during World War 2, and serving as the first director of the Sloan-Memorial Kettering Institute for Cancer Research.
Manuel Rafael Suárez Díaz
A few months after the scandal with Dr. Rhoads, Puerto Rico would see another event on which the Nationalist Party would place great historical significance. To honor the birthday of Puerto Rican patriot José de Diego, a speech was delivered by Don Pedro in San Juan’s Plaza de Armas on April 16. At the same time, the Senate was discussing a bill that proposed to convert the single-starred flag of Puerto Rico, then only used by nationalists and independence supporters, into the official flag of the colony. In the middle of his speech, Don Pedro was approached by a nationalist who had just arrived from the Capitol building to tell him of the news.
When Don Pedro brought the news to his audience, he asked, “What are we going to do now?” The crowd replied, “Let’s stop it!” According to a police estimate cited by The New York Times, Don Pedro led a crowd of about 1,500 people to the Capitol building just a half mile away. Arming themselves with sticks and rocks, the crowd chanted “¡Viva la República! ¡Abajo los bandoleros!” Notified of the coming protestors, the police lined up in front of the Capitol building and tried in vain to deny their entry — the protestors pushed through and made their way to the stairs leading to the legislative floor. The entire time police and protestors were fighting outside, police with their clubs and the protestors with whatever they had picked up on the way.
Inside of the building the weight of the protestors being pushed and wrestled by police caused part of the balcony to collapse, resulting in many of them falling some 25 feet to the floor below. Eleven people were taken to the hospital, high school student Manuel Rafael Suárez Díaz died in the fall, and Don Pedro was immediately arrested on charges of inciting to riot — the bill to adopt the flag was never approved. At his trial, Don Pedro tried to get the case dismissed by arguing against the authority of U.S. courts in Puerto Rico. When this was overruled, he presented a defense and finally succeeded in getting his case dismissed on June 23.
The death of Suárez Díaz was of great significance to Don Pedro and the Nationalist Party. In a speech given years later on April 16, 1950, Don Pedro reflected on the impact it had on him personally, saying, “There I found myself in the most bitter sadness of my life, a mother had lost her only son … a hero.” Historian Marisa Rosado summed up the impact his death had on the Party, writing, “The nationalists since then claim Suárez Díaz as their first martyr and conceive the flag consecrated with their blood.” The following year Don Pedro delivered a speech in the presence of his mother and took a moment to acknowledge her as “the first martyr mother of the homeland of this generation.” The speech, publicized in El Mundo on May 12, 1933, was given on what Don Pedro declared to be “the Day of the Consecration of the Flag of Puerto Rico.”
- Dr. Rhoads Cleared of Porto Rico Plot; Letter Telling of Giving Cancer to Natives Is Declared to Have Been Parody. Incident Held Closed. Governor Accepts Findings of Medical Association, Health Commissioner and Attorney General, (The New York Times, 15 February 1932).
- Mob Invades New Capitol of Porto Rico; Youth Killed in Riot Over Flag for Island; Mob Raids Capitol In Porto Rico Riot, (The New York Times, 18 April 1932).
- Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
- Pedro Albizu Campos: Obras Escogidas, 1923-1936, Tomo I, edited by J. Benjamín Torres (Editorial Jelofe, 1975).
- Rights: Group Strips Racist Scientist’s Name from Award, by IPS Correspondents (Inter Press Service, 29 April 2003).
- Win Puerto Rican Trial; Albizu and Portilla Are Freed of Capitol Riot Charge, (The New York Times, 24 June 1932).