Huge plutonium story grew from footnote Reporter dug deep for details of secret experiments

February 01, 1994|By Victoria White | Victoria White,Contributing Writer

Washington -- Eileen Welsome found her future in a footnote.

In the tiny type of a scholarly report on animal experiments, the Albuquerque Tribune reporter learned that American scientists had injected people with plutonium nearly 50 years ago to learn how the deadly substance would travel through the body.

That bit of information sent her on a six-year journey that finally opened to public scrutiny a shocking and hidden chapter in atomic history and has made her a contender for a Pulitzer Prize for reporting.

None of that seemed likely when she first spotted the footnote in 1987 and called it to her city editor's attention. "You won't believe this story!" she had said. "There are these people who were injected with plutonium!"

His response: "Well, we hired you to be the neighborhood writer."

She could have stopped right there, with the knowledge that she had at least made an effort. She could have been overwhelmed, too, by the odds against a reporter for a small newspaper in New Mexico -- the 35,000-circulation Tribune isn't even the biggest paper in Albuquerque -- uncovering information that the government did not want uncovered.

But she wasn't. In her spare time, Ms. Welsome started gathering information.

"My imagination was so caught by this idea," she said, "that it was a kind of thing that I couldn't forget. It was just baffling to me. I just wanted to learn more."

Who were these people? What had become of them? How could such an experiment have happened?

Since her three-part series answering those questions was published in November, President Clinton has ordered the establishment of an advisory committee to review the plutonium experiment and a host of other Cold War-era radiation tests on at least 800 people without their knowledge. Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary has said that victims deserve a governmental apology and compensation.

And Ms. Welsome the interviewer has become Ms. Welsome the interviewee, appearing on CNN, C-SPAN and radio talk shows. She has testified on Capitol Hill about what she says has been a cover-up of the experiment because many names and medical records have yet to be released.

Her work on the story continues. On a recent trip to Washington, she pushed the Energy Department to open up more files and spent time poring over newly acquired documents with Elmerine Whitfield Bell, the daughter of one of the patients in the plutonium experiment.

"It's an obsession to her," Mrs. Bell said.

Ms. Welsome, 42, clearly prefers to talk about her story rather than herself. After a childhood spent largely in the South, she discovered journalism as a young adult in the most practical of ways: She needed a job.

In search of one, she found herself in a newsroom in Chapel Hill, N.C. She was hired to work in production, preparing plates for the presses. She fell in love with the words coming off the presses and began to write feature articles.

'Just won't stop'

Ms. Welsome had been a college dropout, but her experience at the paper persuaded her to finish school and get a journalism degree. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1980, she worked as a reporter for several small weekly and daily newspapers. Having landed at the Albuquerque Tribune in 1987, she has won several journalism awards for reports on the exploitation of New Mexico wildlife and the demise of a public utility company.

"When I'm not working, I'm constantly getting thrown off my horse," she said.

A self-described "obsessive-compulsive," she tries to relax by playing the piano and reading and listening to poetry. She lives with her husband, Tim Martin, an assistant city editor at the competing Albuquerque Journal, and their dog and cat.

A tiny woman with straight blond hair, Ms. Welsome "is one of those people who just won't stop. She's a rare breed of reporter," said Tim Gallagher, editor of the Albuquerque Tribune. "Her husband says God made Eileen so small to give the rest of the world a chance."

Ms. Welsome was not the first to report on the plutonium experiment. There had been stories on it in scientific journals, and it was mentioned in a 1986 congressional report that was covered by many newspapers.

But it was reported as a "one-day story," and major media did not pursue it further. Interested in the human dimension, Ms. Welsome worked relentlessly to identify the patients who had been part of an experiment that began in 1945 and continued with follow-up studies for nearly three decades.

"Somebody has to talk about it," she said. "Yes, it was in the scientific literature, but the pain wasn't. The suffering wasn't. The deceit wasn't. And that's what is in the series."

Through her reporting, she learned that scientists had injected the substance, which was known to be deadly, into patients without their informed consent. The scientists were seeking to determine how plutonium travels through the body.

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