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"A Little Touch of Buchenwald": America's Secret Radiation Experiments

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 28, Number 4, December 2000
pp. 601-606 | 10.1353/rah.2000.0079

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Reviews in American History 28.4 (2000) 601-606
Eileen Welsome. The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War. New York: The Dial Press, 1999. ix + 580 pp. Notes, pictures, and index. $26.95(cloth); $16.95(paper).

As historians evaluate the impact of the Cold War and the rise of the national security state on American society, they will certainly need to pause and consider the significance of a series of human radiation experiments that were conducted on thousands of United States' citizens during and after World War II. Coming at a time when the victorious Allied powers were putting Nazi leaders on trial for crimes against humanity, and at a time when American leaders were trumpeting the glories of individualism and free choice over the evils of unfettered state power and mindless conformity in the Communist world, these experiments raise fundamental questions about American ideology and policy in the postwar era.

The Plutonium Files is based on a series of Pulitzer Prize investigative reports that Eileen Welsome wrote for the Albuquerque Tribune in 1993. The book takes its name from an experiment conducted from 1945 until 1947 in which 18 patients were injected with plutonium, almost all of them with 5 micrograms, (2 were injected with 94.91 micrograms) at a time when the "tolerance dose" of plutonium was listed as 1 microgram. The author painstakingly recreates this and many other experiments on people with radioactive substances, and analyzes the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) "vast network of national laboratories, universities, and hospitals that would investigate every imaginable effect of radiation over the next three decades" (p. 198). The book is also notable for its identification of the victims and its effort to understand what they went through. While historians might have hoped for more context for this story, the author does a stunning job of laying bare the government's role in sponsoring these experiments, including its mostly successful effort to keep them secret from the American public as well as from the patients themselves.

In the course of America's massive endeavor to defeat the Axis powers and produce an atomic bomb before the Germans did, hundreds of scientists and technicians developing the bomb at Los Alamos and elsewhere were exposed to radioactive substances, some of which, like plutonium, were new and had unknown health effects. At first scientists believed that plutonium was less hazardous than radium, but by 1945 scientists understood that the workers were facing far more serious hazards than they had previously believed. Thus, the initial impetus for human experimentation with plutonium was to understand the hazards that these workers faced. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, American officials were dispatched to Japan where they observed firsthand the devastating effect that the bombs' radiation had on survivors. Thus it became "even more imperative to obtain accurate information" so that the impact of working with plutonium could be assessed (p. 121).

One of the most telling parts of Welsome's book is her discussion of the ethical standards for human experimentation that existed at the time. As early as 1890 the Journal of the American Medical Association cautioned doctors that even obtaining consent from patients "will not protect the physician in performing bizarre operations, or reckless experimentation," and in the midst of World War II in 1942, the Committee on Medical Research was committed to the principle that volunteers should be informed about the nature and risks of the medical experiments that they participated in. In 1947 the Nuremberg Code enunciated perhaps the most famous code of medical ethics of the modern era. Indeed, the chief prosecutor declared at the trial of the doctors accused of conducting medical experiments on helpless victims: "It is the most fundamental tenet of medical ethics and human decency that the subjects volunteer for the experiment after being informed of its nature and hazards. This is the clear dividing line between the criminal and what may be non-criminal" (p. 213).

David Rothman has pointed out that the Nuremberg Code, despite the resonance that it has today, actually attracted little attention among American physicians and the public...



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