Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2094th Meeting

Speaker: Gregg Herken, Smithsonian Institution
Topic: “Science in the Service of the State: Magic Bullets, Medical Research, and Wartime Human Radiation Experiments”

President Agger called the 2094th meeting to order at 8:20 p.m. on October 23, 1998. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2093rd meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2094th meeting was Gregg Herken of the Smithsonian Institution. The title of his talk was, “Science in the Service of the State: Magic Bullets, Medical Research, and Wartime Human Radiation Experiments.”

In early 1994, newspaper accounts of World War II-era radiation experiments on American citizens prompted the White House to establish an Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) to investigate and report on these events. Most famous, or notorious, of the experiments was the tale of 18 patients injected with plutonium. This occurred at hospitals in Oak Ridge, Chicago and San Francisco between 1945 and 1947, under contract to the Army's now well known, Manhattan Project. Mr. Herken described what the committee found, focusing on the three patients injected with plutonium carried out at the University of California's hospital in San Francisco.

The story became a sensation in 1993, when the Albuquerque, NM, Tribune put names and faces to five of the 18 patients. This gave them a human dimension that was missing from earlier technical depictions of government research run amok. On the good side, the investigating committee was given unlimited access to the records of more than a dozen Washington agencies. On the bad side, the Department of Energy alone had 3.2 million cubic feet of records, and the investigating committee had only a year to find, analyze and report on all human radiation experiments carried out during the Cold War. This was a daunting task.

The report showed the Army radiation project was aimed at determining the risk to workers in the nation's wartime atomic-bomb assembly plants. Under the Army's protocol, the patients to be injected with plutonium were to be at least 45 years old and not expected to live more than 10 more years. However, in practice these guidelines were not followed.

Mr. Herken described the stories of three of the patients. The first, Albert Stevens was a 58-year-old house painter diagnosed with stomach cancer and was not expected to live through his surgery. However, it turned out that Mr. Albert's fatal cancer was really a non-lethal, stomach ulcer. The second patient was not a 45 year old adult, but Simmy Shaw, a 4 year old boy from Australia with bone cancer. Here the diagnosis was correct and young Simmy died of the bone cancer 8 months after the injection. The third patient was Elmer Allen, again not a 45 year old, but a 36-year-old African-American porter also diagnosed with bone cancer. Thus, our experimental subjects include an indigent painter, a small child and an African-American porter, essentially a disadvantaged population.

The story gets worse when we hear about the physicians sponsoring the experiments. The principle sponsor was Joseph Hamilton with colleagues, Robert Stone and Earl Miller. In addition to their notable roles as practicing physicians with research appointments to the radiation laboratory in Berkeley, they had secret and less noble roles in what would later be called radiological warfare; the use of radiation itself as a weapon of war. In fact, Hamilton was asked by Robert Oppenheimer to explore the possibility of using radiological poisons, including plutonium, as a weapon against the Germans in the event the atomic bomb didn't work. The goal would be to kill as many as half a million of the enemy, either by direct radiation or by poisoning their water or food. In addition, Hamilton proposed an experiment whereby terminal leukemia patients would inhale raw fission products to see the effects, admitting that his suggestion had what he called “a little of the Buchenwald touch.” Thus, it was clear that Hamilton was not a Marcus Welby type of physician. However, the committee had to answer the question, “Did their plutonium injections have any relation to their to their interest in and promotion of radiological warfare?” Mr. Herken answered with a qualified, “No.” Further, as we now know, their quest for a “magic bullet” using radiation to treat cancer also ultimately led to a dead end.

Mr. Herken then closed his presentation with an historic perspective of his examples. Not only did the first patient, Albert Stevens not have stomach cancer, he outlived Hamilton. In fact, Stevens lived 21 years after the plutonium injection and died of a heart attack at the age of 79. Hamilton on the other hand died of leukemia at the age of 49 almost certainly caused by his carelessness around radiation. Elmer set the record for the longest-lived of all the plutonium injectees. He died in 1991 of respiratory failure at the age of 80. So, whatever the plutonium injections did, they were not lethal.

Mr. Herken then kindly answered questions from the floor. President Agger thereupon thanked Mr. Herken for the society, announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. She then adjourned the 2094th meeting to the Social Hour at 9:25 p.m.


Respectfully submitted,
Bill Spargo
Recording Secretary

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