Cover image for The plutonium files : America's secret medical experiments in the Cold War
The plutonium files : America's secret medical experiments in the Cold War
Welsome, Eileen.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York, N.Y. : Dial Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
580 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
RA1231.R2 W45 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
RA1231.R2 W45 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



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, inThe 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.

Author Notes

Eileen Welsome won the Pulitzer Prize, the George Polk Award, the Selden Ring Award, & a dozen other major journalism awards in 1994 for breaking the story of America's secret medical experiments in the Cold War in "The Plutonium Files." A former John S. Knight Fellow, she lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Journalist Welsome won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for her exposeof the secret experiments conducted by the "bomb doctors" of Los Alamos, who injected 18 patients with plutonium without their knowledge or consent during the cold war. Some died soon after. Others lived for decades in pain and ill health, which they passed on to their descendants in the form of birth defects. Welsome's aggressive research and courageous reporting coincided with the release of classified documentation of thousands of other cases involving the deliberate yet clandestine exposure of civilians, prison inmates, and military personnel to high levels of radiation. As a result, President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments was established, but its shocking disclosures and the subsequent public outcry flashed by too quickly and inconsequentially to take root in our national consciousness. So now, in this reportorial tour de force, Welsome presents the entire harrowing story of the catastrophic consequences of the atomic weapons establishment's almost unimaginable hubris and immorality. As skilled in rendering science comprehensible as she is in articulating the ethical issues involved, Welsome is also an accomplished profiler. Her portraits of medical officers who were so desperate to understand how radiation and plutonium affected the body they broke the Hippocratic oath as well as every other law of decency are chilling, and her dramatic and compassionate depictions of the mothers, children, and blue-collar workers these monsters tortured--people who were, for the most part, poor, uneducated, and sick--are unforgettable, the fabric, one would think, of nightmares, and every bit of it true. Welsome has compiled a staggering and invaluable chronicle of the most ghoulish and appalling aspects of the creation of the atom bomb, an undertaking that has put every human being at risk, and with which we have yet to even begin to come to terms. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a deeply shocking and important expos‚, Welsome takes the lid off the thousands of secret, government-sponsored radiation experiments performed on unsuspecting human "guinea pigs" at U.S. hospitals, universities and military bases during the Cold War. This riveting report greatly expands on Welsome's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 articles in the Albuquerque Tribune, which told how 18 men, women and children scattered in hospital wards across the country were injected with plutonium by U.S. Army and Manhattan Project doctors between 1945 and 1947. As Welsome demonstrates, the scope of the government's radiation experimentation program went much further. She documents how, between 1951 and 1962, the army, navy and air force used military troops in flights through radioactive clouds, "flashblindness" studies and tests to measure radio-isotopes in their body fluids. Additionally, she reveals that cancer patients were subjected to total-body irradiation, and women, children, the poor, minorities, prisoners and the mentally disabled were targeted for radio-isotope "tracer" studies, frequently without their consent and in some cases suffering excruciating side effects and premature deaths. In 1993, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary launched a campaign to make public all documents relating to the experiments, which had been kept secret. Welsome cogently argues that O'Leary's efforts resulted in a Republican vendetta that led to her ouster. Written with commendable restraint, this engrossing narrative draws liberally on declassified memos, briefings, phone calls, interviews and medical records to convey the enormity of the irradiation program and the bad science behind the flawed and dangerous testsÄand to document the government's systematic cover-up. Anyone who cares about America's history, moral health and future should read this book. 8-city author tour. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Here's another work of fact that reads like fiction: to see whether radioactive materials caused cancer, Los Alamos scientists secretly injected hospital patients with plutonium. Welsome won a Pulitzer and many other awards for breaking the story. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Plutonium, an element discovered in 1940, quickly found use in atomic weaponry manufacture, before its health effects had been better understood. To build its own database, the Manhattan Project's medical staff began developing relevant information, all of which had been maintained as secret for some 50 years. When Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary in 1993 ordered declassifying old Atomic Energy Commission health-related secret documents, some of them revealed the tests. Among them, and by far the most disturbing, were those performed on unsuspecting patients. Indeed, small numbers of atomic workers had been deliberately and unknowingly (to them) put at risk. These declassified documents provided the sources for science reporter Welsome's well-written coverage of this sorry topic. In an easily readable narrative, she traces the program's tragic history from its accidental beginnings in 1944 at Los Alamos through tests up to the mid-1970s elsewhere in the US, experiments in which victims in limited numbers were unwittingly exposed to plutonium. She details her information sources and includes a serviceable index. All levels. J. G. Morse; Colorado School of Mines



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. The day after the accident, Hempelmann sat down and wrote Stafford Warren a thank-you note. "I was sorry to bother you but was anxious to have your help and moral support. In retrospect, I think that the chances of the fellow's having swallowed a dangerous amount of material are slight." Hempelmann told Warren that he believed about ten micrograms of plutonium had entered Mastick's mouth. The mouth washings had removed all but one microgram, an infinitesimal but nevertheless hazardous amount. More important, Hempelmann thought the chemist had not inhaled any plutonium. At that time scientists knew that plutonium was extremely hazardous if it was breathed in and deposited in lung tissue. But they also were discovering that the radioactive material was not readily absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and that it could not penetrate beyond the outer layer of human skin. Thus, most of the microgram of plutonium in Mastick's mouth undoubtedly would have passed through his digestive system and out of his body without being absorbed. A catastrophe had been avoided, but the accident was a vivid reminder of the invisible dangers that scientists and workers were confronted with at "Site Y," the code name for Los Alamos. The responsibilities seemed overwhelming to Hempelmann, who was only twenty-nine years old and a neophyte when it came to understanding radiation. He had been working with radioactive materials for three years. As for plutonium, he had only about six months of hands-on experience. "There were all sorts of problems," he admitted years later, "which I just couldn't handle because of limited experience." Excerpted from The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War by Eileen Welsome All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.