Doctors of death

January 14, 1994|By Gregg Herken & James David

REPORTS of government radiation experiments on unwitting Americans during the cold war, though shocking, have overlooked an important and sinister element: Some of the plutonium injections and X-rays were performed not only for medical research but also to study potential military applications of radiological poisons. The doctors who carried out some of the experiments were interested not only in saving lives but in taking them.

The work of two physicians mentioned in news accounts, Joseph G. Hamilton and Robert S. Stone, deserve further scrutiny.

Hamilton, a neurologist at the University of California Hospital in San Francisco, was one of the first doctors to use radioactive tracers in medical research in the 1930s. Stone, a radiologist at the same hospital, was chosen by the Army in 1942 to monitor the health of people working on the atomic bomb.

From 1942 to 1946, Stone exposed 32 dying patients to powerful X-rays to examine radiation's effect on the body. Such information was needed to develop treatments for the inevitable victims of radiation accidents at the bomb factories that were proliferating around the country.

During the war years, Hamilton fed plutonium to rats in a similar effort to find out where it went in their bodies.

Both men became intrigued with another obvious application of their research: using deliberate contamination with radiation as a weapon of war. As early as the spring of 1943, they discussed with the Army killing an unspecified number of the enemy by poisoning food or water with radioactive strontium.

While the success of the atomic bomb diverted attention from this project, the two doctors remained enthusiastic about radiological warfare. "If we were directed tomorrow to reorganize our fission product work to the military needs of radioactive warfare," Hamilton advised the Army in January 1945, "almost all of our past and present efforts with fission products would be directly applicable."

His rat experiments having proved inconclusive for humans, Hamilton notified the Army on May 10, 1945, that he was awaiting a "suitable patient." A few days later, he found Albert Stevens, a house painter from Healdsburg, Calif., who was believed to be suffering from terminal stomach cancer.

On May 14, Stevens was injected with what one of Hamilton's colleagues subsequently described as "many times the so-called lethal textbook dose" of plutonium. On May 18, a biopsy showed that the patient had an ulcer, not cancer.

Although Hamilton never told Stevens the nature of the experiment in which he was the guinea pig, the doctor closely monitored the plutonium his patient excreted. Stevens dutifully collected his urine and feces in glass bottles and stored them in a shed behind his house.

The end of the war did nothing to stem Hamilton's interest in radiological warfare. In April 1946, he again reported to the Army on potential military applications of his research. Three days later, he injected plutonium into a boy with terminal bone cancer. But the Army was beginning to get squeamish.

In November, when Hamilton asked for more plutonium, the Army denied the request. In December, it advised him to "take immediate action to stop this work." A week later, Hamilton sent the Army a secret report on radiological warfare in which he proposed using radioactive smoke as a killing agent. "Such a type of preparation would appear well adapted for producing fission product aerosols to subject urban populations to fission product poisoning by inhalation," he wrote. "It can be well imagined the degree of consternation, as well as fear and apprehension, that such an agent would produce upon a large urban population after its initial use." Countermeasures and decontamination, he concluded, would be "almost hopeless."

The following month, the Atomic Energy Commission, the civilian agency that had meanwhile assumed responsibility for atomic weapons from the Army, sent a representative to talk to Hamilton about his proposed future human experiments. The intermediary reported that "Dr. Hamilton's plan for conducting the research should be satisfactory" to the commission.

In July 1947, Elmer Allen, an African-American railroad porter believed to be suffering from bone cancer, became the third and last subject to be injected with plutonium at the University of California Hospital.

Fragmentary records indicate that other radioactive substances -- including polonium, americium and radium -- were injected into other as-yet-unidentified human subjects.

By 1948, protests against human radiation experiments were being raised in the AEC. That fall, the chairman of the commission's advisory committee on biology and medicine, outraged that Stone was giving whole-body X-rays to arthritis patients, notified the radiologist that the commission's experts "do not wish to collaborate in clinical investigations with physicians in whose considered judgment they do not have confidence."

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