Human radiation testing is a daunting concept complicated by fundamental questions: is human testing ethical? How much consent is required for the testing to be ethical? Is it right to inflict pain on others for the good of the nation or for the benefit of scientific discovery? Unfortunately, history points to examples where experimentation takes advantage of vulnerable populations who were not given sufficient information to be in a position to provide informed consent, and in numerous cases, asymmetrical power relations rendered “choice” moot. The United States, like other national actors, has a history of unethical human radiation testing.
Between April 1945 and July 1947, the medical team of the Manhattan Project performed a controlled experiment on humans: 18 subjects were injected with plutonium, six with uranium, and at least one with americium. The injections were performed at affiliated hospitals in Rochester, New York; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Chicago, Illinois; and San Francisco, California. At the end of WWII, the government-sponsored nationwide nuclear weapons development project responsible for the atomic bomb expanded its research to include the testing of radiation on the human body.
The Manhattan Project medical team focused on understanding the unknown effects of radiation on biological life. Tests on rodents and various other animals were only potentially suggestive of the risks and dangers of radiation exposure to humans, due to cited experimental limitations such as time constraints and physiological differences. Accordingly, with Los Alamos Lab Director Robert J. Oppenheimer’s approval, William Moss and Roger Eckhardt, “The Human Plutonium Injection Experiments,” Los Alamos Science 23 (1995): 177–233.four radiologists—Stafford Warren of the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, Robert Stone of the Met Lab at Chicago, Joseph Hamilton at UC Berkeley, and Louis Hempelmann at Los Alamos—collectively decided to begin a series of human radiation testing experiments. Already, in a letter to General Leslie Groves, the program director, Arthur Compton, head of the Met Lab’s plutonium project, recommended that one of the three priorities for the postwar Manhattan Project’s FY1945 agenda should be the medical application of radiation. Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., Volume 1 A History of The United States Atomic Energy Commission: The New World, 1939/1946 (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962), https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2013/08/f2/HewlettandAndersonNewWorldNoBookmarks.pdf.Under the banner of national safety and security, such investigations were perceived as necessary for both researchers and potential victims of radiation.
The first 18 subjects, all of which had preexisting terminal illnesses, were administered plutonium solution through an IV at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, and urine and stool samples would then be collected from the dying patients. Accounts of the experiments were telling. The first test subject, a man named Ebb Cade, was a 53-year-old African American male who was involved in a car accident. While he was awaiting a procedure to set his bones, Dr. Joseph Howland administered a plutonium dose nearly five times the limit concluded to be the maximum possible limit for humans. The doctors delayed treating Cade’s arm and leg injuries sustained in the car accident so that they could biopsy his bone samples and extract 15 of his teeth. After his bones had been set, Cade discharged himself from the hospital and died of heart failure 8 years after the injection.
Another notable case was a four-year old boy named Simeon Shaw who was suffering from bone cancer. He was flown from Australia to California. While in the hospital, his mother was only allowed to visit him occasionally. He received a plutonium injection under the oversight of Joseph Hamilton and was discharged within a month. Simeon died eight months later.
The experiments were conducted under a high level of secrecy. A memorandum from the Atomic Energy Commission from April 1947 recommended that human experimentation not be made public because Atomic Heritage Foundation, "Human Radiation Experiments," July 11, 2017, https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/human-radiation-experiments.“it might have an adverse effect on public opinion or result in legal suits.” While protocols for patient consent eventually were created, the original patients were not made aware of the nature of the injections, the medical procedure, or the risks. Additionally, while human experimentation was justified by the claim that the patients were terminally ill, that was not true in all cases. Many errors were made in diagnosis, procedure, documentation, and research.
After the experiments associated with the Manhattan Project, human experimentation continued throughout the Cold War. In one series of experiments, eighty-eight test subjects, primarily low-income, non-white cancer patients, were irradiated without consent under the leadership of Dr. Eugene Saneger at the University of Cincinnati, directly causing the death of about one in four patients. In another case, Quaker Oats company received funding from the Department of Energy to test the nutritional value of oatmeal by feeding radioactive iron and calcium to a 57-member “science club” comprised of mentally challenged boys from Fernald School in Massachusetts. Federally sponsored research was performed on prisoners in Washington and Oregon state prisons and on pregnant women at Vanderbilt University. Human radiation testing has happened in other countries. Tracy Dahl, "Japan’s Germ Warriors," The Washington Post, May 26, 1983, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1983/05/26/japans-germ-warriors/a0149d21-ba27-460e-a807-d3db942ba507/?utm_term=.07b54a475bdd.The United States freed prisoners of war, such as Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii, in exchange for the testing results.
When documentation became declassified, individual and class-action lawsuits began to flood the organizations affiliated with the human experimentation. The pregnant women treated at Vanderbilt won a $10.3 million lawsuit against the university. MIT and Quaker Oats paid a joint settlement of $1.85 million to the subjects at the Fernald School. Dana Yeo, "Human Radiation Experimentation in the United States from World War II through the Cold War," March 21, 2013, http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2013/ph241/yeo2/.The U.S. Government paid $4.8 million in suits to 12 of the 18 people injected with high levels of plutonium during the Cold War.
President Bill Clinton delivers address on Human Radiation Testing, 2 October 1995, William J. Clinton Presidential Library
The U.S. federal government turned a blind eye to these experiments conducted by federal scientists, until Eileen Welsome, a reporter for the Albuquerque Tribune, called serious attention to the initial 18 cases through a series of articles. Her research, the media, and multiple lawsuits eventually snowballed into the 1995 Clinton Openness Initiative to create the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE). 840,000 pages of investigation later, the committee decided that “wrongs were committed” but didn’t go much further than that. Tests on pregnant women and disabled boys were dismissed as “not harmful,” and no policy solutions or reforms were proposed. President Clinton provided a heartfelt address on the matter, and an under-reported ceremony took place on October 2, 1995. The ACHRE subsequently released 1.6 million pages of classified archives
Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. "Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments: Final Report." DOE Openness: Human Radiation Experiments. July 1, 1995. Accessed July 31, 2020.
Atomic Heritage Foundation. "Human Radiation Experiments." 2017. Accessed July 31, 2020.
Dahl, Tracy. "Japan's Germ Warriors." The Washington Post, May 26, 1983. Accessed July 31, 2020.
Hewlett, Richard G., and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr. Volume 1 A History of The United States Atomic Energy Commission: The New World, 1939/1946. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962. Accessed July 31, 2020.
Moss, William, and Roger Eckhardt. “The Human Plutonium Injection Experiments." Los Alamos Science 23 (1995): 177-233.
The National Security Archive. "Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments." 1995. Accessed July 31, 2020.
Stockton, Richard. "Inside the U.S. Government's Secret 30-year Radiation Experiment on its Citizens." All That's Interesting. August 8, 2017 [last updated]. Accessed July 31, 2020.
U.S. Department of Energy. "ACHRE Report." DOE Openness: Human Radiation Experiments. July 1, 1995. Accessed July 31, 2020.
Welsome, Eileen, interviewed by Amy Goodman. "Plutonium Files: How the U.S. Secretly Fed Radioactivity to Thousands of Americans." Democracy Now! May 5, 2004. Accessed July 31, 2020.
Welsome, Eileen. The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War. New York: The Dial Press, 1999.
Yeo, Dana. "Human Radiation Experimentation in the United States from World War II through the Cold War." March 21, 2013. Accessed July 31, 2020.