Vertus Hardiman and the medical tragedies that must not be forgetten

Vertus Hardiman wore a wig for more than 70 years. His hair piece concealed a painful secret: a head ravaged by a raw, open wound that was eating through his scalp and skull. As a child, Hardiman was a victim of irresponsible medical practices that left him with physical and psychological scars for the rest of his life.

Vertus Hardiman, wearing the wig he used to cover his head wound. Courtesy Wilbert Smith

It was 1927 and Vertus, then age 5, had a case of ringworm, a fungal infection that affects the skin. He and nine other Black children from the close-knit community of Lyles Station, Indiana, were taken for treatment to a nearby hospital . The treatment they received was high-dose radiation. The children’s parents had no idea that signing the permission slips for the hospital visit would lead to their kids being irradiated.

When it was Vertus’s turn, he remembers hearing the nurse shout, “Oh my God, I’ve given him too much” – chilling words he would never forget. Though all of the Lyles Station children were left with burns and hair loss, Vertus was the most disfigured. He would go on to say that he suspected the radiation experiment was racially motivated.

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Although the parents of the children sued the hospital, saying they were misled, they lost their case.

Vertus’s uncle Gletus, just two years older, also received radiation treatment for ringworm, along with several other Hardiman family members. Courtesy Wilbert Smith

Vertus’s wound eventually became cancerous and ultimately ended his life at age 85. Only in his final years did he begin to speak out about the horrifying ordeal he endured and the agonizing pain he suffered every day. He entrusted his story to a close friend, Wilbert Smith. Together, they documented Vertus’s life story in a book and documentary film that unveiled the wound he hid from the world.

Portrait of Vertus Hardiman
Vertus during the filming of “Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed.” Courtesy Wilbert Smith

In this final episode of Color Code, we speak with Smith about his dear friend Vertus and the documentary they made more than a decade ago, “Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed.” We also hear from Linda Villarosaa contributor to The New York Times Magazine and author of “Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation.She tells us about the story of the Relf sisters, who were sterilized without their consent in 1973, and shares her thoughts on the medical mistreatment of Black people like Vertus Hardiman.

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A transcript of this episode is available here.

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To read more on some of the topics discussed in the episode:

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