The victim of an unethical secret U.S government radiation experiment in 1928, Vertus Hardiman did not let a severe deformity prevent him from living a full life.
His remarkable story was told in a documentary, “Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed.” According to the film, Hardiman was born on March 9, 1922 in Lyles Station, Ind., known as one of the earliest Negro settlements in the United States. Growing up in era of racial segregation, he found comfort at Lyles Station Consolidated School.
When Hardiman was five years old, he was one of nine children that took part in a terrifying medical experiment. At a local county hospital, the children took part in a misrepresented treatment that was supposed to cure scalp fungus, according to the The Root. Instead, the ringworm fungus was a ploy to get access to operate on innocent children.
At the time, many human radiation experiments were funded by the United States Department of Defense and United States Atomic Energy Commission. Experiments included feeding radioactive food to disabled children, inserting radium rods into schoolchildren and injecting pregnant women and babies with radioactive chemicals. The studies were classified until 1986, when they were released in the report entitled “America Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments.”
The treatment on his Hardiman’s skull left him with progressive necrosis of the scalp throughout the rest of his life. The disfigurement of his head was so severe that he always wore hats and wigs to disguise his scalp. Hardiman faced intense criticism from friends who had no idea what he was hiding, and for nearly 80 years he kept his disfigurement secret from the public.
Despite his obstacle, he graduated from Lincoln High School with honors in 1941. In 1945, Hardiman traveled to the West Coast in search of a job. After a year, he gained employment with the Los Angeles County General Hospital, where he was known as a loyal employee and was honored for his perfect attendance record.
Later in life, Hardiman lived in Altadena, Calif. and attended First AME Church of Pasadena. He befriended Wilbert Smith, a church member who was also a writer and producer. Hardiman broke down one day in tears and told Smith of the tragedy he faced early in his life. His story was turned into the documentary, released in 2009.
“It was God’s grace that helped and kept me here this long,” Hardiman said in the film. “I think he wanted this story told to show the magnitude of his mercy.”
Hardiman died on June 1, 2007 at age 85.