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The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War [Paperback]

Eileen Welsome
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews Review

As World War II reached its climax, the U.S. push to create an atomic bomb spawned an industry the size of General Motors almost overnight. But a little-understood human dilemma quickly arose: How was all the radiation involved in building and testing the bomb going to affect the countless researchers, soldiers, and civilians exposed to it? Government scientists scrambled to find out, fearing cancer outbreaks and worse, but in their urgency conducted classified experiments that bordered on the horrific: MIT researchers fed radioactive oatmeal to residents of a state boys' school outside Boston; prisoners in Washington and Oregon were subjected to crippling blasts of direct radiation; and patients with terminal illnesses (or so it was hoped) were secretly injected with large doses of plutonium--survivors were surreptitiously monitored for years afterward.

It was these plutonium guinea pigs that set journalist Eileen Welsome on her decade-long search to expose this grisly chapter of America's atomic age, a feat that would earn her the Pulitzer Prize. In the impressively thorough and compelling Plutonium Files, Welsome recounts her work with a reporter's gift for description, characterizing early radiation researchers as "a curious blend of spook, scientist, and soldier," tirelessly interviewing survivors and their families, and providing social and political context for a complex and far-reaching scandal. Perhaps most damning is that not only did these cold-war experiments violate everything from the Hippocratic Oath to the Nuremberg Code, Welsome reveals, they were often ill-conceived, inconclusive, and repetitive--"they were not just immoral science, they were bad science." --Paul Hughes --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In a deeply shocking and important expos?, Welsome takes the lid off the thousands of secret, government-sponsored radiation experiments performed on unsuspecting human "guinea pigs" at U.S. hospitals, universities and military bases during the Cold War. This riveting report greatly expands on Welsome's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 articles in the Albuquerque Tribune, which told how 18 men, women and children scattered in hospital wards across the country were injected with plutonium by U.S. Army and Manhattan Project doctors between 1945 and 1947. As Welsome demonstrates, the scope of the government's radiation experimentation program went much further. She documents how, between 1951 and 1962, the army, navy and air force used military troops in flights through radioactive clouds, "flashblindness" studies and tests to measure radio-isotopes in their body fluids. Additionally, she reveals that cancer patients were subjected to total-body irradiation, and women, children, the poor, minorities, prisoners and the mentally disabled were targeted for radio-isotope "tracer" studies, frequently without their consent and in some cases suffering excruciating side effects and premature deaths. In 1993, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary launched a campaign to make public all documents relating to the experiments, which had been kept secret. Welsome cogently argues that O'Leary's efforts resulted in a Republican vendetta that led to her ouster. Written with commendable restraint, this engrossing narrative draws liberally on declassified memos, briefings, phone calls, interviews and medical records to convey the enormity of the irradiation program and the bad science behind the flawed and dangerous testsAand to document the government's systematic cover-up. Anyone who cares about America's history, moral health and future should read this book. 8-city author tour. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Expanding on her Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper series, Welsome's shocking expos? reveals that during the Cold War Americans were injected with plutonium without their knowledge in secret government experiments to see if radiation caused cancer. This is superb investigative journalism. (LJ 9/15/99)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New England Journal of Medicine

Amid the embarrassments of Monicamania and of multiple public mea culpas, the past few years have not been exemplary ones for American journalism. This fact makes the triumph of The Plutonium Files all the sweeter, because this superlative book is a reminder of the purpose of investigative journalism.

This richly detailed, subtly nuanced history of government-engineered radiation experiments on unwitting Americans is based on the Pulitzer-prize-winning series Eileen Welsome wrote for the Albuquerque Tribune. Welsome's tenacious and resourceful detective work has unveiled the saga of a sordid, tragic, yet fascinating chapter in the history of American medical science. The book succeeds on many levels. It is a gripping expose of governmental exploitation and of medicine's moral failures in an era in which blind trust defined the normal relationship between physicians and patients. Between April 1945, scant months before the bombing of Hiroshima, and July 1947, the scientists of the Manhattan Project followed the construction of the atomic bomb with a chilling second act: medical experimentation on hundreds of unsuspecting Americans. Pioneers of nuclear science, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Louis Hempelmann, and Stafford Warren, masterminded the experiments from the headquarters they carved out of the New Mexico desert, in Los Alamos. Doctors working with the Manhattan Project initially injected plutonium into 18 men, women, and children. They acted without obtaining the consent of these people, informed or otherwise, and without therapeutic intent. Their mission was to study dispassionately the "fiendishly toxic" effects of plutonium on selected groups so that physician-scientists would know how best to protect American researchers, soldiers, and citizens exposed to atomic weapons.

But the radiation experiments did not end there, nor even with the end of World War II. The malignant flowering of curiosity about the effects of radiation on humans continued for three more decades. Until the 1970s, government scientists and physicians made use of unwitting Americans in order to discover the effects of exposure. Scientists already knew that radiation was dangerous. Newspaper accounts had graphically detailed the radiation poisoning of women in New Jersey who painted the dials of watches with radium, who died horribly while they were still young. The hands of Nobel laureate Marie Curie, the discoverer of radium, were chronically covered with radiation burns, and she died of radiation-induced leukemia in 1934. Many people who worked with x-rays died of various forms of leukemia.

But scientists wanted to know more. What types of physiologic damage were caused by specific levels of radiation? So, in hospitals, schools, and other institutions across the nation, they administered amounts of plutonium, x-rays, gamma rays, and radium that far exceeded established tolerance limits.

Each of the book's 47 chapters takes us on a tour of a subsidiary program, usually illustrated by the experiences of the research subjects. In one such program, soldiers were shipped to the desert for deliberate exposure to the detonation of nuclear bombs. In another program, unsuspecting patients in private and public hospitals -- from Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York, to Vanderbilt University Hospital's prenatal clinic in Nashville -- were injected with plutonium or otherwise used as subjects in experiments. The moribund ill, pregnant women and their fetuses, the poor, the middle class, the mentally ill, and children in institutions all risked attracting the fatal attention of the doctors of the Manhattan Project. The results, including data on the resultant cancers and even radioactive body parts, were forwarded to Los Alamos. Welsome not only tells each of these stories and more, but she also gives each of them a human face.

Such outrages strike our post-Tuskegee world as positively diabolical. But the medical Wunderkinder and politically savvy scientists who designed these experiments thought it necessary and logical to expand the boundaries of scientific medical knowledge beyond the new radioactive frontiers. Welsome presents their points of view without editorial comment and without apparent irony. Fleshing out the human drama around medical malfeasance has rarely been done so well. The coolly amoral scientist is a stock figure borrowed by journalism from science fiction, but like all stereotypes, such a depiction is one-dimensional and therefore false. As in Who Goes First? (New York: Random House, 1987), Lawrence Altman's study of self-experimentation by researchers, Welsome conveys the researchers' motivations and their capacity for moral anguish -- where it exists.

In doing so, she evokes the mores of a vanished age in which the physician-scientist was God. Sometimes, she finds unexpected complexity. She recounts how, as a young physician, Stafford Warren had been horrified to discover that the patients on whom he performed autopsies had died not of Hodgkin's disease but of the radiation treatments they had been given. He felt driven to quantify radiation's dangers. But unlike Altman's heroes, these scientists cagily declined to experiment on themselves. Researcher Wright Langham observed, "We considered doing such experiments at one time, but plutonium is considered to be sufficiently potentially dangerous to discourage our doing absorption experiments upon ourselves."

Then there is the horrifying reality that these experiments were taking place in the shadow of Nazi Germany; some of the scientists involved in the radiation experiments were the very men whose earlier experimental designs had tormented prisoners of concentration camps. Welsome describes Operation Paperclip, conducted under the auspices of the U.S. government. Paperclip imported Nazi scientists and supported their work, helping to confer, in the words of scientist Joseph G. Hamilton, "a little of the Buchenwald touch" on American medicine.

Welsome's achievement is a triumph of science, art, and morality. The book's copious detail will make it valuable to medical historians and medical ethicists. The book contains notes, listed by chapter; it also contains lists of major sources, including scientific articles, oral histories, videotapes, and government documents.

Journalists will find that The Plutonium Files is a perfect example of investigative medical reporting. Ethicists should be especially intrigued by the lack of consensus within the panel that was charged with investigating the experiments. Venerable giants in the field of medical-research ethics -- such as Jay Katz, Patricia King, and Ruth Macklin -- looked at the documents, and each saw very different issues. In The Plutonium Files, Welsome slashes the moral Gordian knot by unabashedly caring about the people described in its pages as individuals. She skillfully spins out their personal histories to create a richly colored tapestry that captures the full costs -- scientific, social, and personal -- of the radiation experiments. She also captures the moment when an important group of physician-scientists ceased to view themselves as healers and benefactors first, with disastrous results for their victims and for American medicine. Welsome dissects that sea change for the sake of history, without rancor but with a sense of ineffable loss.

This valuable work represents an elegy to lost ideals, lost health, and lost trust. One can only hope it will serve as a cautionary tale.

Reviewed by Harriet A. Washington
Copyright © 1999 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Journalist Welsome won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for her exposeof the secret experiments conducted by the "bomb doctors" of Los Alamos, who injected 18 patients with plutonium without their knowledge or consent during the cold war. Some died soon after. Others lived for decades in pain and ill health, which they passed on to their descendants in the form of birth defects. Welsome's aggressive research and courageous reporting coincided with the release of classified documentation of thousands of other cases involving the deliberate yet clandestine exposure of civilians, prison inmates, and military personnel to high levels of radiation. As a result, President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments was established, but its shocking disclosures and the subsequent public outcry flashed by too quickly and inconsequentially to take root in our national consciousness. So now, in this reportorial tour de force, Welsome presents the entire harrowing story of the catastrophic consequences of the atomic weapons establishment's almost unimaginable hubris and immorality. As skilled in rendering science comprehensible as she is in articulating the ethical issues involved, Welsome is also an accomplished profiler. Her portraits of medical officers who were so desperate to understand how radiation and plutonium affected the body they broke the Hippocratic oath as well as every other law of decency are chilling, and her dramatic and compassionate depictions of the mothers, children, and blue-collar workers these monsters tortured--people who were, for the most part, poor, uneducated, and sick--are unforgettable, the fabric, one would think, of nightmares, and every bit of it true. Welsome has compiled a staggering and invaluable chronicle of the most ghoulish and appalling aspects of the creation of the atom bomb, an undertaking that has put every human being at risk, and with which we have yet to even begin to come to terms. Donna Seaman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

A fierce expos of governmental duplicity and dangerous science. A decade ago Welsome, a reporter for the Albuquerque Tribune, happened upon a reference in an air force report to a nuclear waste pile that contained the carcasses of several animals that had been used in testing the effects of radiation. The report hinted that animals were not the only subjects. Intrigued, Welsome began to sift through a mountain of official documents, discovering that, from 1945 to 1947, 18 unsuspecting civiliansmen, women, and even children scattered in quiet hospital wards across the countryhad been injected with plutonium to test the effects of radioactive materials on the human body. Such testing formed part of a federal program that employed, in the words of a government film narrator, every angle and every gadget we can to find out what really happens when an atomic bomb kicks out fiercely at the world around it. In a tour de force of investigative reporting, Welsome tracked down some of these subjects; and she weaves their stories into a larger narrative, one that tells the story of US government Cold War medical experimentation as a whole. Much of this testing, it appears, was unnecessaryafter all, the government had thousands of preexisting subjects, the Japanese victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some of it, Welsome suggests, was done at the behest of US atomic scientists at Los Alamos, N.M., who were worried about their own health. Those physicists, as scientist Arthur Compton wrote, knew what had happened to the early experimenters with radioactive materials. Not many of them had lived very long. Neither did many of those 18 victims, and neither did thousands of soldiers and civilians exposed to atomic-bomb blasts in the deserts of the Southwest, all in the name of delivering the world from Communism. The literature on the official crimes of the Cold War era is large and growing. Welsomes stunning book adds much to that literature, and it makes for sobering reading. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"A deeply shocking and important exposé... Anyone who cares about America's history, moral health and future should read this book."
-- Publishers Weekly

"There should have been--and should now be--hundreds of other reporters out there doing what [Welsome] has so brilliantly done here."
-- Newsday

"A remarkable tale... Welsome doesn't merely report [the] facts. She brings the characters to life, and re-creates settings, dialogue and events."
-- The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Compelling...[Welsome's] portraits of leading officials are vivid and subtle, wonderfully capturing [their] deep moral ambivalence."
-- Los Angeles Times

"[An] expansive and valuable account...engrossing."
-- The New York Times Book Review

From the Inside Flap

In a Massachusetts school, seventy-three disabled children were spoon fed radioactive isotopes along with their morning oatmeal....In an upstate New York hospital, an eighteen-year-old woman, believing she was being treated for a pituitary disorder, was injected with plutonium by Manhattan Project doctors....At a Tennessee prenatal clinic, 829 pregnant women were served "vitamin cocktails"--in truth, drinks containing radioactive iron--as part of their prenatal treatmen....

In 1945, the seismic power of atomic energy was already well known to researchers, but the effects of radiation on human beings were not. Fearful that plutonium would cause a cancer epidemic among workers, Manhattan Project doctors embarked on a human experiment that was as chilling as it was closely guarded: the systematic injection of unsuspecting Americans with radioactive plutonium. In this shocking exposé, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Eileen Welsome reveals the unspeakable scientific trials that reduced thousands of American men, women, and even children to nameless specimens with silvery radioactive metal circulating in their veins. Spanning the 1930s to the 1990s, filled with hundreds of newly declassified documents and firsthand interviews, The Plutonium Files traces the behind-the-scenes story of an extraordinary fifty-year cover-up. It illuminates a shadowy chapter in this country's history and gives eloquent voice to the men and women who paid for our atomic energy discoveries with their health--and sometimes their lives.

From the Back Cover

"A deeply shocking and important exposé... Anyone who cares about America's history, moral health and future should read this book."
-- Publishers Weekly

"There should have been--and should now be--hundreds of other reporters out there doing what [Welsome] has so brilliantly done here."
-- Newsday

"A remarkable tale... Welsome doesn't merely report [the] facts. She brings the characters to life, and re-creates settings, dialogue and events."
-- The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Compelling...[Welsome's] portraits of leading officials are vivid and subtle, wonderfully capturing [their] deep moral ambivalence."
-- Los Angeles Times

"[An] expansive and valuable account...engrossing."
-- The New York Times Book Review

About the Author

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Eileen Welsome has received the George Polk Award for National Reporting and the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, among other honors. She currently resides in Denver.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Acid Taste of Plutonium

The accident occurred on August 1, 1944, a morning like any other in Los Alamos: hot, dry, the sky an indigo bowl over the sprawl of wooden buildings and barbed-wire fences that constituted the core of the Manhattan Project. At seven thousand feet, the New Mexico air smelled of sun, pines, a trace of frost. Occasionally the scent of dust spiraled up from the desert, where temperatures hovered around 100 degrees.

In twelve months, two atomic bombs would be dropped on Japan, and the secret work being carried out in the wooden buildings would be revealed to the world. On the morning of the accident, the atomic bomb had progressed far beyond mathematical theories but was still an unproven weapon. Plutonium, a silvery metal discovered about four years earlier, was one of the key elements that would transform the theories into a fireball.

In Room D-119, a cheerful young chemist named Don Mastick was standing over a sink chatting with his laboratory partner, Arthur Wahl, a chemist not much older than himself and one of the four scientists from the University of California at Berkeley who had discovered plutonium. Mastick was just twenty-three years old, a "bushy-tailed kid," as he would later describe himself, with short blond hair and an alert, friendly face. He had been one of Berkeley's most promising chemistry graduates and was just about to enlist in the Navy when J. Robert Oppenheimer approached him and asked if he would like to join the scientific team being assembled in Los Alamos, the most secret site in the vast network of laboratories and factories established to build the bomb.

Oppenheimer, a brilliant theoretical physicist, was already a legend on the Berkeley campus, and Mastick was thrilled at the idea of working with him. When he arrived in Los Alamos in the spring of 1943, Oppenheimer had designated him the lab's ultra microchemist. Working with amounts of plutonium that were too small to be seen with the naked eye, he studied the chemical reactions of the new material under a microscope. His glass test tubes were no bigger than sewing needles and his measuring instruments looked like a child's toys. Even his laboratory was small: a claustrophobic box at the end of a hallway, ten feet wide and twelve feet long.

In Mastick's hand that day was a small vial containing ten milligrams of plutonium--an amount so small it would have fit on the head of a pin. But it was far more plutonium than Los Alamos had had to work with only a year before. In fact, the radioactive material was still so scarce that a special crew had been assembled whose only job was to recover the material from accidents and completed experiments and then repurify it through chemical processes so it could be used again. The crew developed a flow chart to help separate plutonium from every other element in the Periodic Table. "They were prepared to tear up the floor and extract the plutonium, if necessary. They would even dissolve a bicycle. I mean, plutonium [was] so valuable that they went to great extremes to recover everything," physician Louis Hempelmann recalled decades later.

Inevitably some of the radioactive molecules seeped out into the laboratory, spread by a starched sleeve, the scuff of boots, even the dust that blew in from the desert. Nervous and preoccupied with their efforts to construct a workable bomb, Oppenheimer and his colleagues viewed the spreading contamination with consternation. Their concerns were twofold: They didn't want to lose any material, and they were just beginning to understand its potential hazards. Joseph Kennedy, another member of the Berkeley team who had discovered plutonium, acknowledged that it was "not pleasant" to think that unaccounted-for plutonium was floating around the lab. On the day of this particular accident--which would be the most serious of any thus far--it was not the lost plutonium that would be the problem. It was the plutonium in Mastick's vial.

A purplish-color liquid that gave off an eerie, animallike warmth when concentrated in larger amounts, the plutonium in the vial had undergone an unanticipated transformation overnight. Some of the liquid had been converted into gas and was pushing against the walls of the bottle. Other molecules were tunneling into the sides of the glass itself.

Unaware of the small bomb he was holding, Mastick snapped the slender neck of the vial. It made a small, popping sound in the quiet laboratory. Instantly the material spewed out of the bottle and onto the wall in front of him. Some of the solution ricocheted back into his mouth, flooding his lips and tongue with a metallic taste.

Not overly alarmed, Mastick replaced the vial in its wooden container. Then he trotted across the hard-packed ground of the technical area to knock on the door of Dr. Hempelmann's first-aid station. He had just swallowed a significant amount of the world's supply of plutonium. "I could taste the acid so I knew perfectly well I had a little bit of plutonium in my mouth," he said in an interview in 1995.

Louis Hempelmann's office was just a few minutes' walk from D Building, where Mastick worked. With its "deluge shower baths" and clothes-changing rooms, D Building was one of the most elaborately ventilated and costly structures at Los Alamos. Except for the forest of metal pipes protruding from the roof, it looked no different from the other green clapboard structures in the technical area.

Hempelmann was the medical doctor in charge of protecting technical personnel on the bomb project from "unusual hazards," and he reported directly to J. Robert Oppenheimer. With his long, narrow face and wide jaw, Hempelmann wasn't handsome, but there was something refined and pleasing about his appearance. He was the son and grandson of doctors and a fine physician in his own right, although he was known to grow queasy at the sight of blood. ("Louie did his first sternal puncture on me and he almost fainted. He's one of those doctors that can't stand the sight of blood--he should have been a psychologist or something," said Harold Agnew, one in a line of laboratory directors who succeeded Oppenheimer.)

Taking great pains to keep his long face expressionless, Hempelmann listened to Mastick's account of what had happened and then left the room for a moment in order to make a frantic phone call to Colonel Stafford Warren, the affable medical director of the Manhattan Project. Hempelmann often turned to Warren, who was nearly two decades older, for advice and reassurance. In his late forties when he was commissioned as an Army colonel, Warren was a big man, well over six feet tall, who exuded a breezy confidence. Unlike many of the scientists on the bomb project, who refused to join the armed forces and chafed under military control, Warren loved being in the Army. He liked the rough feel of his starched uniform, the silver eagles on his collar, the .45 revolver tucked in a holster on his belt.

Speaking on a secure telephone line from his office at the Manhattan Project's headquarters in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Warren tried to calm Hempelmann down. He thought about the accident for a moment and then suggested that the young doctor try using a mouthwash and expectorant to remove the plutonium from the chemist's mouth. Hempelmann hung up and hurried back to the examining room where he prepared two mixtures. The first was a sodium citrate solution that would chemically combine with the plutonium in Mastick's mouth to form a soluble liquid; the second was a bicarbonate rinse that would render the material insoluble again.

Mastick swished the solutions around in his mouth and then spit them into a beaker. The first mouthful contained almost one-half microgram of plutonium. A microgram of plutonium, which is a millionth of a gram, was considered in 1945 to be the maximum amount of plutonium that could be retained in the human body without causing harm. Eleven more times at fifteen-minute intervals Mastick swished the two solutions around in his mouth and then spit them into the beaker.

After the accident, Mastick's breath was so hot that he could stand six feet away and blow the needles on the radiation monitors off scale. His urine contained detectable plutonium for many years. In one of several interviews Mastick said that he was undoubtedly still excreting "a few atoms" of plutonium but had suffered no ill effects.

When the mouth washings finally were finished, Hempelmann ordered the young man to lie down on a cot. Then he pumped out his stomach several times. Carefully he transferred the stomach liquids into a tall beaker. The plutonium would have to be chemically separated from the organic matter in Mastick's stomach and mouth so it could be reused in future experiments. No scientist at the lab had ever undertaken such a task.

Hempelmann gave the young chemist a couple of breakfast waffles for his empty stomach and some Sippy alkaline powders to be taken during the day. Then he turned and handed him the four-liter beaker of murky liquid.

Go, he said, retrieve the plutonium.

Mastick returned to his lab with the beaker and opened his textbooks. It took a "little rapid-fire research," as he put it, to figure out how to separate the plutonium from the organic matter. But he didn't flinch from the task, despite the ordeal he had just been through. "Since I was the plutonium chemist at that point, I was the logical choice to recover it." From Mastick's perspective, the mood in which all these events took place was calm, deliberate, and "almost humorous." But other people did not feel nearly so relaxed about what had occurred.

The day after the accident, Hempelmann sat down and wrote Stafford Warren a thank-you note. "I was sorry to bother you but was anxious to have your help and moral support. In retrospect, I think that the chances of the fellow's having swallowed a dangerous amount of material are slight." Hempelmann told Warren that he...
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