In June 1994, Sen. Paul Wellstone spoke on the floor of the U.S. Senate to call attention to a secret test conducted by the Army in Minneapolis in 1953.
Zinc cadmium had been sprayed from the rooftops of several buildings to study airflow patterns and determine how vulnerable U.S. cities would be to biological weapons or radioactive fallout.
Wellstone had met with three women who had been students at Clinton Elementary School, one of the buildings used in the tests. Diane Gorney, who had been a fourth-grader in 1953, was one. She told him of the health issues her classmates and neighbors experienced later. Then she led an effort to contact all of the estimated 475 students at the school in 1953 to find out their medical histories.
"My sister helped initiate a groundswell of response," said Carole Fisher. "The result was NIH [National Institute of Health] hearings which collected testimony in numerous locations in America."
The disclosure led to congressional hearings. Wellstone and Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., introduced legislation calling for a $1 million study by the National Research Council (NRC).
In 1997, an NRC panel said the spraying "did not expose the public to harmful levels of a chemical agent used to simulate a biological warfare attack."
Gorney, who said that more than half the 200 to 250 women she had traced had been plagued by reproductive problems, told the Star Tribune the report was "exactly what we expected" and only raised more questions.
Gorney, of Minneapolis, died on June 5 at 76. Diagnosed with dementia in 2018, she had tested positive for COVID-19 on May 24.
Fisher said her sister "was interested in pursuing justice" from an early age. "Our father, Leo, was a welder by trade," Fisher said. "He eventually got involved as a labor union organizer. He had grown up on the White Earth Reservation. He had a keen sense of righting wrongs and fighting for people. Diane did that her whole life."
Gorney taught art at Lamberton, Minn., High School for several years. Then she moved to Minneapolis and went to work for Hennepin County Social Services.
She served as director of WARM (Women's Art Registry of Minnesota) Gallery, on the board of All Relations Gallery and as a member of the Twin Cities Women's Film Collective.
"She did a lot of research to connect to our family's Native heritage," said Fisher.
Gorney's husband, Janis Vape, died in 2011. Services have been held.