Vertus Wellborn Hardiman (March 9, 1922 – June 1, 2007), who was a victim of a US government human radiation experiment at the age of 5 that left him with a painful skull deformity that forced him to cover his head for 80 years.
Hardiman was born in Lyles Station, Indiana. Lyles Station began in 1927, is known as one of the earliest Black settlements in the United States, and the Hardiman family was among the first to migrate to the area. In 1928, Vertus attended the local elementary school, Lyles Consolidated School. The parents of 10 children at school were approached by county hospital officials. The parents were told that there was a new treatment for dermatophytosis, a fungal infection commonly known as “ringworm.” What the parents didn’t know was that the children were actually part of a human experiment on extreme radiation, probably chosen because they lived in such an isolated location, and probably because they were all Black. The children were exposed to high levels and many were left with disfiguring scalp scars and head trauma. The effects of the experiments were mostly hidden from the townspeople of Lyles Station. Many of the children wore wigs and hats to cover up the results of the experiments.
Vertus Hardiman, one of the children, who was five years old at the time, finally broke his silence more than 70 years later, to a friend, Wilbert Smith, who partnered with Brett Leonard to produce the documentary, “Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed.” The 2011 film is the amazing story of Hardiman and the nine other children who were affected by the horrible experiment in Lyles Station.
Hardiman was physically affected the worst by the radiation. As a result he experienced a slow dissolving of the bone matter of his skull for the rest of his life. The ensuing deformed head and gaping hole at its top were disguised by a succession of hats, toupees, and wigs. Every day of his life he spent an hour changing bandages and dressing the wound.
Despite his circumstance, he had lived life on his own terms and refrained from complaining about his affliction. Vertus’ life was an example to others of the triumph of the human spirit. He insisted that education is the foundation for creating a heaven while here on earth. He never borrowed money and subsequently was able to accumulate astonishing amounts of wealth by investing his savings in real estate.
He died at age 85. Upon his death, Vertus bequeathed eight million dollars to his church and favorite educational scholarship fund. Vertus harbored no anger and was known to say frequently, “If I am angry, my prayers will not be answered because my heart’s not right.”