The Plutonium Files – the book that exposed the plutonium radiation scandal

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.

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.


The Plutonium Files: America’s secret medical experiments in the Cold War
 N Engl J Med 1999; 341:1941-1942 December 16, 1999  Harriet A. Washington

The Plutonium Files: America’s secret medical experiments in the Cold WarBy Eileen Welsome. 580 pp. New York, Dial Press, 1999. $26.95. ISBN: 0-385-31402-7

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 exposé 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 medicalWunderkinder 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.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: