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

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

by Eileen Welsome

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The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War by Eileen Welsome

When the vast wartime factories of the Manhattan Project began producing plutonium in quantities never before seen on earth, scientists working on the  top-secret bomb-building program grew apprehensive. Fearful that plutonium  might cause a cancer epidemic among workers and desperate to learn more about what it could do to the human body, the Manhattan Project's medical doctors embarked upon an experiment in which eighteen unsuspecting patients in  hospital wards throughout the country were secretly injected with the cancer-causing substance. Most of these patients would go to their graves without ever knowing what had been done to them.

Now, in The Plutonium Files, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Eileen Welsome reveals for the first time the breadth of the extraordinary fifty-year cover-up surrounding the plutonium injections, as well as the deceitful nature of thousands of other experiments conducted on American citizens in the postwar years.

Welsome's remarkable investigation spans the 1930s to the 1990s and draws upon hundreds of newly declassified documents and other primary sources to disclose this shadowy chapter in American history. She gives a voice to such innocents as Helen Hutchison, a young woman who entered a prenatal clinic in Nashville for a routine checkup and was instead given a radioactive "cocktail" to drink; Gordon Shattuck, one of several boys at a state school for the developmentally disabled in Massachusetts who was fed radioactive oatmeal for breakfast; and Maude Jacobs, a Cincinnati woman suffering from cancer and subjected to an experimental radiation treatment designed to help military planners learn how to win a nuclear war.

Welsome also tells the stories of the scientists themselves, many of whom learned the ways of secrecy on the Manhattan Project. Among them are Stafford Warren, a grand figure whose bravado masked a cunning intelligence; Joseph Hamilton, who felt he was immune to the dangers of radiation only to suffer later from a fatal leukemia; and physician Louis Hempelmann, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the plan to inject humans with potentially carcinogenic doses of plutonium. Hidden discussions of fifty years past are reconstructed here, wherein trusted government officials debated the ethical and legal implications of the experiments, demolishing forever the argument that these studies took place in a less enlightened era.

Powered by her groundbreaking reportage and singular narrative gifts, Eileen Welsome has created a work of profound humanity as well as major historical significance.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307767332
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/20/2010
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 22,613
File size: 3 MB

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 Albuquerque, New Mexico.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

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.

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Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Plutonium Files will certainly bring to mind that old saying 'truth is stranger than fiction'. And that is an understatement. Eileen Welsome has put together an amazing, readable and understandable account of the scientific research and experimentation with radioactive substances that started in the early 1940s in the United States, continued for decades and came to light only in the 1990s. This is truly an eye-opening book that no informed American citizen can afford to ignore. The impact of the information contained in this book is hard to put into words. You will not want to put it down, and you will not forget it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Welsome does a great job of nringing this shocking and disturbing account of human guinea pigs America, which is still probably happening now with experimetns we are not told about. She specifically discusses the Fernald school and how unwanted kids were befriended by MIT researchers and given presents and trips in return for drinking radioactive milkshakes. This was scandalous some years ago and one might wonder if the research at Fernald was later used for things like the first microwave oven introduced by Raytheon. This is frightening in that it shows our government really cannot be trusted to act always in our best interests.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a well researched but disturbing book about how US military personnel and abandoned or retarded children have been used for medical research. This sort of thing also went on with CIA approval under the infamous MK Ultra LSD experiments on military personnel and prison inmates. One chapter deals with the Fernald school in Waltham,Massachusetts where kids were befriended by MIT researchers and given radioactive milk to test the effects of radiation on the human body. It is a sad commentary on how our society views castaway children.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Eileen Welsome¿s 1999 publication, The Plutonium Files: America¿s Secret Medical Experiments in Cold War, tells the story of four decade¿s worth of horror, as scientists, doctors, and spooks turned human beings into guinea pigs. While the government did apologize when the truth was uncovered 40 years later, responsible parties were never blamed and little justice was given to those who suffered. Welsome tries to give these people the attention they deserve in this 592 page book that reads so simply and interestingly, like an eloquent newspaper article. The book goes by fast and anger mounts, as we learn what humans can do to one another, believing in a higher cause. Welsome¿s research on this story about human guinea pigs studied for plutonium radiation, began in 1987, when while working at her new job at the Albuquerque Tribune in New Mexico, she learned about radioactive animals being dumped at nearby waste sites. Her curiosity lead to research where she learned humans had been experimented upon. While human guinea pigs had already been discovered and written about in the news, Welsome continued to gather information about the experiments over the course of a decade, and then some more. In writing this book, Welsome gave names and histories to the individual human guinea pigs that were only recognized by number before, by the scientists that created their names to the news articles that were written about them. The examples listed on the jacket of the book are only a few of the people Welsome brought back to life. This includes Helen Hutchison, a young woman who was fed a radioactive ¿cocktail¿ drink when coming in for a routine checkup at a prenatal clinic, Gordon Shattuck, ¿one of several boys at a state school for the developmentally disabled in Massachusetts who was fed radioactive oatmeal for breakfast.¿ Before Welsome wrote about this, their names were symbols, like ¿CHI-1,¿ the first person the scientists tested on in Chicago, or HP-12, Edd Cade, the first person specifically tested as a result of concerns during the Manhatten Project. By focusing on individuals hurt and the logic used for testing on them, Welsome shares the quiet anger, the intensity of each and every life stolen for what doctors deemed were a ¿greater cause.¿ Cade had been a decently healthy man, with eyes going blind due to cataracts. However, after a bad vehicle accident left him in the hospital, he became the first guinea pig of the 18 injected. The doctors that injected him knew they could do so without arousing suspicion as they could blame necessary injections on his injuries. Doctors simply noted he was a healthy, and therefore, in good condition for desired testing. He was injected with 4.7 micrograms of plutonium - almost five times what scientists at the time felt a body could handle without harm. Scientists also took parts of Cade¿s bones, gums, jawbone and 15 teeth for study, pretending it was necessary for his health. While Welsome focuses her book on the 18 men, women, and children who were injected with plutonium between April 1945 and July 1947 by doctors working for the Manhattan Project, to create the first atomic bomb, she also brings to light the disturbing truths about the thousands of people who had been injected with radiation other than plutonium during the Cold War. It has been discovered that testing was done on humans into the 1970¿s. However, this is only used as more of a side note to emphasize the injustice placed on these 18 individuals, most of who died never knowing how their health was plagued by doctors turning them into guinea pigs without their consent. She draws attention to the cruelty that lead scientists to justify treating humans so poorly. Welsome says, ¿Almost without exception, the subjects were the poor, the powerless, and the sick ¿ the very people who count most on the government to protect them.¿ The moral used was usually patriotism, with scientists believing a few human guineas would be
Guest More than 1 year ago
Don't wait as long as I did to read this important book. Every thinking person needs to know what can happen when the apparatchiks get out of control. Secret experiments are done in hospitals. People are lied to and lured into treatments they don't need. Some are killed by the state without trial. And its all for the good of the state, not the people who are 'treated.' Russian, American and allied troops fought World War II to see that these things did not happen ever again. The Nuremberg Trials resulted in the Nuremberg Medical Code. The Code forbids medical experimentation on non-consenting citizens. In today's Russia the kind of activity talked about in Eileen Welsome's book would be outside the pale of what is now considered civilized behavior. So where did all the nefarious activity Ms. Welsome uncovered take place? The United States. Who were the culprits, the Dr. Frankensteins? They were doctors in some of America's most prestigious teaching hospitals. Whose government covered up the scandals for 50 years? Ours. Read this book right now and never let the government lie to us like this again. Our government lied to us, our doctors lied to us, our hospitals lied to us. All three experimented on our fellow citizens. This book tells us to take care. Ms. Welsome's excellent book The Plutonium Files reminds us once again that 'eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (and of good health and longevity it would seem).' She deserves all the accolades she has received and our thanks.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent though not so well known book! It details an apsect of American history we as citizens are not held accountable to. There is one man who survived the leukemia epidemic in Woburn,Mass and was raised as an orphan in Massachusetts state care. This man may have been subject to medical experiments, especially while in residential care in Boston, Mass at a private nonprofit organization for emotionally disturbed children (similar to the Fernald school??). At this program the children were required to eat certain things at all times such as milk. When the man was released from the program his records were sanitized and any attempts to procure them resulted in outright hostility on the part of a former government official who worked for the organization.The man was subsequently sent off to a hard labor camp in Massachusetts and his life became a series of ongoing obstacles and harassment.
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We would have executed Joseph Mengele at Nuremburg for doing this!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book does a good job of detailing the nature and effects of deceptive medical research practices but how has the research been used? For example, with the Fernald school in Waltham, Mass kids were given radioactive components in their food in return for some good times. Good times to kids that society had thrown away. Is it possible that this radiation research was used to determine the safety of the first microwave ovens for human use? And doesn't it seem that with the introduction of the microwave oven over the past 10 years there has been a meteoric rise in gastrointestinal problems across the population? A possible link between microwaves and disturbance of the gastrointestinal tract? And could some of the research at Fernald show that some of these kids had similar symptoms? Welsome does a great job of bringing forward a disturbing picture of how researchers view their test subjects.