The families of scores of nuclear power station workers whose hearts, lungs and other organs were secretly stored and tested over a period of almost 40 years were let down by the authorities, a report said yesterday.
Relatives were seldom told that their loved ones’ organs were to be removed, and as a result families buried or cremated incomplete bodies.
In many cases the truth that their organs had been illegally removed and then destroyed in the testing process emerged only many years later.
The three-and-a-half year investigation conducted by Michael Redfern, QC, covered events spread over almost four decades.
Between 1960 and 1991 organs were taken from 76 people who had worked at nuclear sites around Britain.
Of these, 42 had been employed at Sellafield, the remainder at Springfields in Lancashire, Capenhurst in Cheshire, Dounreay in Scotland, and Aldermaston in Berkshire.
Mr Redfern, who led the inquiry into the retention of infant body parts at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Liverpool, 10 years ago, laid the blame for the latest scandal largely at the door of health and nuclear industry professionals.
They had worked together on an informal basis to garner an “extraordinary” range of organs.
In particular he condemned the behaviour of Dr Geoffrey Schofield, the former chief medical officer at Sellafield, Cumbria, and the network of coroners and pathologists with whom he worked.
Dr Schofield, who worked at the plant between 1958 and 1985, used “informal arrangements” involving a network of coroners and pathologists to make it easier for him to obtain organs.
On occasion, said Mr Redfern, this led to him taking “somewhat dubious steps”.
The health professionals involved in the scandal routinely ignored the regulations governing the removal of organs.
Sometimes these were taken even though they could have had no possible relevance to the cause of death.
Once relatives learned the truth they felt the bodies of their loved ones had been treated “with a lack of dignity and respect”.
Ironically, had they been properly informed some would have agreed to the removal and analysis of the organs.
Relatives complained that pathologists had effectively treated the bodies of their loved ones as “commodities”.
On occasion bones were replaced with broomstick handles “to give the appearance of normality at the funeral”.
One man who learned 20 years later that his father’s organs had been removed illegally said: “I find this mutilation disturbing”.
Mr Redfern said: “Relatives were let down at the time when they were must vulnerable by those in whom they were entitled to place an absolute trust.
“The removal and analysis of organs for genuine coronial reasons occurred in relatively few cases. In the majority, it was unnecessary or inappropriate.
“Relatives were seldom asked for their consent. As a result, families buried or cremated incomplete bodies and many of those who have discovered the truth, years later, have been greatly distressed.”
Mr Redfern said families had been particularly let down by the pathologists who performed post mortems on their relatives. The majority of these were based at the West Cumberland Hospital.
“Ignorant of the law, they removed organs for analysis without satisfying themselves that the relatives’ consent had been obtained.”
Some relatives said afterwards that they had always suspected that the UK nuclear industry was intent on ensuring that no link could be made between the death of an employee and its own activities.
They had expected the authorities to protect both their interests and the interests of their loved ones.
“We now know that the `old boys club` between the pathologists and coroners and the scientists in the nuclear industry did not do this.
“The part played by these public servants should be of particular concern to us all, because they listened to the representatives of the UK nuclear organizations rather than taking into account the concerns of the families and the interests of society as a whole, even to the extent of delaying post mortems and organizing second post mortems in order to take organs from our loved ones.
“The coroners and pathologists, in particular, should have been impartial but they not only let down these families, they sometimes deceived them.”
Angela Christie, whose father, Malcolm Pattinson, then 36, died of acute myloid leukaemia in 1971, said relatives were still “unhappy and very shocked” by the report.
She added: “Some of the families are going to call for the inquests to be reopened. They think the report hasn’t gone far enough.
“Some of the families do not feel satisfied that all their questions have been answered. We will now take legal advice and each family will decide what to do next.
“It’s very upsetting. We feel violated”.
The inquiry accepted that the illegal gathering of organs was historical and carried out in the context of the time. No one has been disciplined over their actions.
Mr Redfern said Dr Schofield had been “the driving force” behind the post mortem work at Sellafield.
When he died in 1985 his analysis of organs was taken over by Dr Adam Lawson, who had been senior medical officer at the plant. He retired in 1990.