America's Secret Medical Experiments In the Cold War

By Eileen Welsome

Dial. 580 pp. $26.95

An acquaintance of mine who designed high-tech weapons of destruction was once asked how he dealt with the daily stress of creating new ways to kill people. He didn't consider his job in those terms, he said. He simply enjoyed the engineering challenge each new device presented and never really thought beyond.

That stunning ability to compartmentalize must be what allowed scientists at Los Alamos, who helped build the first generation of atom bombs, to celebrate their devastating success in Hiroshima like rowdy college boys after a football victory, with honking cars, fireworks and parties. And perhaps it begins to explain how, in the name of science and national security, they could launch secret experiments on unwitting adults and children to measure the effects of radiation on the body.

In The Plutonium Files, journalist Eileen Welsome provides a disturbing look at what happens when scientists lose touch with their humanity in the single-minded pursuit of scientific advancement. The power of this book and her previous work derives from her relentless pursuit of the names, forms and personal histories of the victims of nuclear science. Six years ago, her Pulitzer Prize-winning series at the Albuquerque Tribune identified some of the real people behind the sterile code names used by the scientists who plunged plutonium-filled syringes into the bodies of 18 patients at hospitals around the country just to see what would happen. The existence of the experiments had been disclosed previously, but the victims remained anonymous until Welsome got curious and tracked some of them down. The emotional punch of her stories set off the public-relations equivalent of an atom bomb at the Pentagon and the Department of Energy.

Her work led to President Clinton's appointment of a special investigative commission and the release of many previously secret documents about other experiments, which helped her press on with her research. As a result, the book goes well beyond her initial focus on one experiment. Welsome marches readers through the killing fields of nuclear history, from the first chain reaction at the University of Chicago to the mass destruction at Hiroshima to the hospital bed of a trusting patient who doesn't know he's about to get a shot of plutonium.

Ebb Cade, "a soft-spoken man with powerful shoulders and callused hands," became the first patient after the bad luck of a car accident landed him in the Oak Ridge Army Hospital about the same time that scientists began patrolling the halls for a suitable subject. It's not clear how he became the chosen one, but Cade received his plutonium injection a couple weeks later on April 10, 1945, while still recovering from his injuries.

Thousands of human radiation experiments followed over the ensuing decades, according to the Clinton commission's count. They involved dying people and poor people, young boys at a state school and expectant mothers, all cast with little or no knowledge to play a role in federally funded experiments. "It's a little cocktail. It'll make you feel better," Helen Hutchison recalled the doctor telling her in July 1946, during a visit to the Vanderbilt University Hospital Prenatal Clinic.

It didn't make her feel better at all: It contained radioactive iron. According to Welsome, she was one of 829 women to receive various doses of the potion from the clinic over a two-year period. Both Hutchison and the daughter she carried went on to suffer a lifetime of strange ailments. Hutchison's hair fell out at one point, she suffers from pernicious anemia, and she is highly sensitive to sunlight. Her daughter, now grown, suffers from an immune system disorder and skin cancer.

Twenty theoretically more enlightened years later, according to Welsome, the women don't get much better treatment. Vanderbilt scientists decided to check in with the women, after new research suggested a link between prenatal radiation and childhood cancer. This provided an opportunity to come clean and maybe provide the study participants with important health information. Instead, Welsome reports, the scientists decided to extract information from the women under the guise of a diet and eating habit survey. The researchers published their findings in the American Journal of Epidemiology: four fatal cancers among children exposed to prenatal radiation and no cancers in the unexposed group. The authors apparently didn't bother to let the women know the results.

Another strength of this book is that Welsome doesn't save her nice narrative touch for the subjects of the experiments. She gives personalities and personal histories to the scientists and public officials as well. This is more than a good writing device. If you don't accept the notion that they were all patently evil human beings, then this sort of detail provides clues about how these men and women with hometowns and hopes and brilliant minds missed the ethical markers along the way -- sometimes even to their own detriment.

Welsome recounts the story of Louis Slotin, a Los Alamos scientist so caught up in the thrill of the science that he treated atomic physics like a parlor game. He invited colleagues to watch him "tickling the Dragon's tail," a precarious test designed to determine exactly how much fissionable material was needed to ignite a chain reaction. "Wearing a loose, open shirt and his trousers tucked into cowboy boots," Welsome writes, "Slotin stood in the middle of a large, sun-filled room and slowly lowered the upper half of a hollow beryllium hemisphere around a mass of fissionable material that was resting in a similar lower hemisphere," using a screwdriver to keep them from touching. "Suddenly the screw driver slipped and the tell-tale blue halo appeared." Everyone raced for the door to escape the deadly radiation, but it was too late for Slotin, who painfully wasted away in a hospital bed before succumbing several days later.

Throughout the book, Welsome weaves a pattern of denial, outright lies and cover-up by a succession of government officials and cooperative researchers -- starting with the testimony of Gen. Leslie Groves to Congress after the bombings of Japan that radiation exposure is "a very pleasant way to die" and continuing through the postwar era of the Atomic Energy Commission, created ostensibly to protect the public from radiation while promoting nuclear energy. Despite the heightened sensitivity about unethical research brought about by the Nuremberg Code, with its strong ethical stance and formalized notion of informed consent, highly questionable radiation experiments continued to be conducted. Welsome says there was a sense among American atomic researchers that the Code didn't apply to their experiments but rather to those carried out by "barbarians" in Germany.

Similarly, some may read this book and think it applies to a different time and an outmoded way of thinking. But a Pentagon study in recent weeks acknowledged the possibility that the military's mass use of an experimental drug on Gulf War soldiers is responsible for their mysterious illnesses. And the biotech boom of the past 20 years has turned up the heat on scientists everywhere to discover miracle cures. Tenure, grant funding, venture capital and product royalties all depend heavily on successful clinical studies.

While much scientific research today may be carried out ethically, the exceptions can still fly below the radar because the culture of secrecy seen in the Cold War era continues. Trade secrets have joined national secrets as an all-too-frequent excuse for keeping important medical research under wraps. Welsome's book is a well-written warning that it did happen here and could happen again.

Deborah Nelson, a staff reporter for The Washington Post's investigative unit, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for the Seattle Times.