Book Review: The Plutonium Files

Book Review: The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War by Eileen Welsome

By Scott Holleran

Human radiation experiments were first acknowledged by the U.S. Government in 1993. The experiments, which included plutonium injections into 18 patients and radioactive “cocktails” given to 829 pregnant women at Vanderbilt University, are the focus of Eileen Welsome’s The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War (Delacorte Press, 564 pp., $26.95).

Welsome’s scholarly account – she won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story in the Albuquerque Tribune – is not for the obsessive-compulsive. Reading Plutonium Files makes the reader want to take a shower and sheds light on seemingly horrifying research, such as the serving of radioactive oatmeal breakfasts to schoolchildren, which happened.

But that’s the prickly thing about science and medicine: that the radioactive oatmeal experiments were conducted simply isn’t enough information, as anyone who puts a bowl of oatmeal in the microwave – or submits to an X-ray test – knows. The amounts of radiation administered to the kids, as Welsome admits, were harmless, and the children’s parents were notified of the experiment in advance, neither of which stops Welsome from lodging serious condemnations of the scientists. Dropping the context of the experiments, Welsome loses the moral authority to make such charges.

Tracing the experiments from their beginnings in 1942, she is mostly even-handed, though her tendency to label any misdeed as unethical and raise the No Nukes flag is occasionally distracting. Also, her interpretation of the experiments as a self-evident evil is a crucial error; full disclosure was hardly prevalent in medicine in the 1940s and 1950s and the notion of informed consent did not dominate the profession as it does today; only later would it gain wider application. Welsome’s righteous tone raises the stakes for the reader, who will expect proof of wrongdoing, which is not presented.

Though she makes the case that many patients did not know they were being injected with plutonium, it is equally evident that many did know they were part of some experiment. Welsome’s implication that those who are poor and black were not able to understand the terms of the treatment is condescending.

One such poor, black patient, Elmer Allen, of Italy, Texas, was informed that he was injected with plutonium – in his case, doctors obtained written consent – and he failed to express alarm. Welsome interprets his response as the mark of a poor education, and, therefore, the fault of the doctors, though it is more likely that he understood what happened on his own terms and was unconcerned. It’s no wonder; in Allen’s case, his bone cancer was cured after the injections.

Plutonium Files is worth reading for its brief glimpses of the early atomic age. A young Navy captain’s lucid, first-hand account of an atomic blast from 2,000 yards is astonishing and a letter from a 13-year-old to President Eisenhower provides a flash of humor: “I hope you don’t think I’m crazy. But I am offering myself to be used as a [G]uinea pig‚ to an atomic bomb blast.” Either things were pretty bad at home or the boy had seen too many sci-fi pictures. Another man volunteers to be near an atomic blast and adds that he’s also willing to be “a passenger on a rocket being sent into the stratosphere, or for any other dangerous mission anywhere on earth.”

The more serious matter of radioactive thyroid glands in Memphis cattle pits Memphis scientist Lester Van Middlesworth, who suspects the whole country’s cattle have been contaminated by fallout from the 1954 Pacific bomb tests, against his mentor, Joseph Hamilton, who suggests the cattle radioactivity arose from airborne contamination from the Oak Ridge National Laboratories. (The chapter, “The Chambers of Oak Ridge,” devoted to studies at the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies, will be of particular interest to Memphis readers.)

Welsome casts some doubt on the claim that patients were gravely ill and the purpose of the experiments was to relieve their pain and improve their well-being – but she fails to prove her case that the experiments were monstrous. Ultimately, Plutonium Files is an exhaustive volume on an important subject and it reads less like the expose of such experiments than a labor of love. It’s too bad it’s not both.

A version of this article was originally published in the San Jose Mercury News on October 24, 1999. An edited version also appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.