Looking Back in Anger

The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War, by Eileen Welsome, New York: Dial Press, 576 pages, $26.95

In the 1970s, Americans might well have wondered if they were captive to a cadre of lunatic research doctors. Throughout the decade, disclosures of strange experiments conducted on unwitting citizens by their own government popped up with unnerving regularity.

The initial revelation came in 1972. A press report disclosed that during the previous 40 years, the U.S. Public Health Service had systematically studied 600 syphilitic black men. Centered in Tuskegee, Alabama, the study involved denying treatment to 400 of them so that Public Health Service doctors could observe the course of their illness. Several died from complications of syphilis, clueless that they had been in an experiment concocted by their amiable health care providers.

Public anger about the callousness of the study was intensified by its racist overtones. The project and its sponsors were castigated, and institutions around the country that sponsored human subject experiments began to establish panels to review their safety and ethics.

Meanwhile, reports about other disquieting experiments began to surface. Two years after the Tuskegee story, the public learned that during the 1950s Central Intelligence Agency researchers had slipped mind-altering substances into the drinks of unsuspecting victims to watch the effects. The drugs sometimes induced psychotic episodes that in at least one case led to a victim's death.

In 1976 came a news story about an odd Army program. From 1949 to 1969, scientists had conducted biological warfare tests by releasing bacteria and chemicals from sprayers, automobiles, and airplanes over American cities and states. During that 20-year period, millions of citizens were unknowingly breathing in the Army's test agents. The purpose was to see whether the microorganisms would spread and survive and whether the country would be vulnerable to an attack with lethal germs.

Army spokesmen contended that the test bacteria, which included Serratia marcescens, were harmless. But they evidently ignored reports that had appeared in the medical literature years before the tests indicating that the bacteria were dangerous to people in weakened conditions. Indeed, a 1950 Army test in San Francisco should by itself have been a show-stopper. Three days after the city was blanketed with Serratia bacteria, patients at a local hospital began coming down with Serratia infections. Eleven patients were infected, one of whom died. Yet Army scientists continued to spray citizens with so-called harmless bacteria for the next 19 years.

All these revelations appeared notlong after people discovered they may have been at risk from the country's nuclear weapons programs. The United States, the Soviet Union, and several other countries had agreed in 1963 to ban aboveground nuclear testing because radiation poisons could travel far beyond the test sites. Before the ban, more than 500 bombs had been exploded outdoors, mostly by the two superpowers. In the process, millions of people were exposed to radioactivity that increased their risk of cancer. People who lived downwind from the sites were particularly vulnerable. So were thousands of American troops who in the 1950s were made to drill in radiation-filled environments after nuclear explosions.

Eileen Welsome's The Plutonium Files deals with radiation-related experiences and experiments. But her uncompromising brief against government, scientific, and medical officials who ran the radiation programs echoes earlier criticisms by others of Tuskegee, the CIA, and the Army germ warfare tests. Her interest in the subject began in the late 1980s. While reporting for the Albuquerque Tribune, she came upon Army documents indicating that at the dawn of the Atomic Age humans had been injected with plutonium to learn how much their bodies retained. She obtained more documents and tracked down survivors, family members, and officials. Her findings led to a series of Tribune articles in November 1993 about the plutonium experiments.

Those articles were something of an epiphany for then-Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary, whose department guarded mounds of classified documents about long-ago radiation tests. That inventory included information about experiments under the department's predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, and before that the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb in 1945.

A month after Welsome's articles appeared, O'Leary announced that she was "appalled and shocked" about the plutonium injections. President Bill Clinton then ordered federal agencies to open all records on human radiation experiments, and he appointed an Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments to review the matter. The committee learned that hundreds of tests had been conducted. Thousands of documents and interviews later, the committee's 1995 report empathized with the many people who had been victimized by "arrogance and paternalism on the part of government officials and the biomedical community."

Welsome is most effective when describing the poor, often uneducated souls who were unwitting guinea pigs. One subject's daughter lamented that telling her father that he was injected with plutonium "would be like telling him he was injected with ice cream." Names and addresses were hard to come by because identities were buried in anonymous aggregates or referred to by code.

But her sleuthing identified a subject called "CAL-1" as Albert Stevens, then a 58-year-old house painter who had moved from Ohio to California in the 1920s in search of a better climate for his asthmatic wife. In 1945, diagnosed with cancer, he was injected with plutonium days before portions of his liver and spleen were removed. He had no idea he was part of a radiation experiment even as his urine and stools were collected to measure their plutonium concentrations. The medical insult to Stevens was compounded when analysis of his removed tissues showed no signs of cancer, just inflammation from a gastric ulcer.

No less dismaying was what happened to "CAL-3." That was Elmer Allen, who in 1947 was a 36-year-old railroad porter whose leg was scheduled for amputation. Doctors injected plutonium into his presumably cancerous leg. After surgery the leg was packaged off to a laboratory for plutonium measurements. Neither Stevens nor Allen nor the 16 other subjects injected with plutonium between 1945 and 1947 knew the real purpose of the injections. Nor, a few years later, did the 74 boys at the Fernald school for retarded and troubled children in Massachusetts know they were eating radioactive elements in their oatmeal. Nor did 829 pregnant women know that the "nutrition" cocktails they were drinking at a Tennessee prenatal clinic were laced with radioactive iron. The doctors in charge never let on that the purpose was to measure the amount of radioactive materials absorbed by their bodies.

Most of the radiation experiments, though not all, seem to have caused no ill effects. Welsome herself acknowledges that the small amounts of radioactive materials used in the majority of experiments "probably caused no harm." When she caught up with Elmer Allen's widow in 1992, she learned that he had died the year before from complications of pneumonia at 80. Still, Mrs. Allen spoke touchingly of how her husband had been exploited. "It just gives me a better view of how people will do you when they feel like you don't know better," she said.

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