1945–1947: Eighteen patients were injected with plutonium in AEC experiments

During WWII, hundreds of scientists and technicians working to develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos were exposed to radioactive substances, including plutonium, whose hazards were not entirely known.

Pioneers of nuclear science, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Louis Hempelmann, and Stafford Warren, masterminded the experiments from the headquarters they carved out of the New Mexico desert, in Los Alamos. Doctors working with the Manhattan Project initially injected plutonium into 18 men, women, and children. They acted without obtaining the consent of these people, informed or otherwise, and without therapeutic intent. Their mission was to study dispassionately the “fiendishly toxic” effects of plutonium on selected groups so that physician-scientists would know how best to protect American researchers, soldiers, and citizens exposed to atomic weapons. (Washington, NEJM, 1999)

The first human subject administered plutonium injections at Oak Ridge Nuclear Facility was 53-year old a “colored man” Ebb Cade, a cement mixer at a construction company who had been hospitalized for broken bone injuries following an automobile accident. He told the doctors that he has always been in good health; so they secretly injected him with 4.7 micrograms of plutonium. At the time of the injection, scientists were perfectly aware of the serious negative effects associated with radiation — since they had conducted numerous radiation experiments on animals and recorded the severe adverse effects. The scientists knew exactly what they were doing; they were intent on documenting the effects of plutonium isotopes on living beings.

Over the next five days, scientists took excretions from Cade to see how much plutonium his body retained and refused to set his broken bones until April 15th, after they cut samples from the bone before doing so to examine the plutonium content in his bone tissue. Fifteen of his teeth were pulled for testing; they never informed Cade what or why they were doing. A nurse said that the tortured Cade escaped in the middle of the night; he died later in 1953 of heart failure. Ebb Cade was the first, but hardly the last American human being to be subjected to an inhumane radiation experiment without his knowledge or consent. (Anthony Gucciardi. . . . Secretly Injected Citizens With Plutonium, Uranium, 2012) Eleven of the 18 plutonium subjects were patients at the University of Rochester, 6 or more were injected with uranium, and 5 were given polonium. Documents uncovered by ACHRE show that at least 9 patients at other universities and hospitals were also similarly injected with radioactive substances.

Physician-scientists, who participated in these grossly unethical experiments, denied responsibility for the decision; they have managed to distance themselves with the entire nefarious program. However, Dr. Wright Langham who wrote the experimental protocol and oversaw the plutonium experiments defended them, claiming the subjects were terminally ill patients who would have died anyway. Patricia Durbin, a scientist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California who participated in plutonium experiments — defended the experiments claiming:

They were always [conducted] on . . . somebody who had some kind of terminal disease who was going to undergo an amputation. These things were not done to plague people or make them sick and miserable. They were not done to kill people. They were done to gain potentially valuable information. The fact that they were injected and provided this valuable data should almost be a sort of memorial rather than something to be ashamed of. It doesn’t bother me to talk about the plutonium injectees because of the value of the information they provided. (Ensign and Aalcalay. Covert Action Quarterly, 1996; Project Paperclip and the Nuremberg Trials Whitewash)

Those claims are false: in April of 1946, Simeon Shaw, a four-year-old boy suffering from bone cancer was brought by his parents from Australia for treatment in the United States. They were told that the injection, and a subsequent removal of some bone tissue, was part of his cancer treatment. When he got sicker, his parents brought him back to Australia, where he died. It wasn’t until thirty years later that they found out what their son was actually injected with. (Inglis-Arkell. US government Secretly Injected People)