1963–1973: High-Dose Radiation Tests on Prisoners’ Testicles to Find Sterility Dose

In 1963, prior to flights into space, scientists were concerned about the effect of space radiation on astronauts’ testicles. They also were concerned about radiated gonads of workers at America’s atomic energy plants. So, they conducted experiments designed to test the effects of massive radiation on prisoners’ testicles without any regard for the consequences for the test human subjects.

In an ugly exercise of rudimentary science that is only now coming to a close, a captive group of human guinea pigs — inmates of Washington and Oregon prisons — were lured into a literal balls-out effort to answer those questions. Enticed with cash and suggestions that participating could help win them parole, and lulled by official assurances that the tests were safe, dozens of prisoners between 1963 and 1973 lined up, stripped down and offered their genitalia to what science called “reproductive radiation tests. . . Dozens of prisoners had their testicles bombarded with radiation in the name of science back in the ’60s and ’70s. (Anderson. Balls of Fire, Mother Jones, 2000)

Until 1973, Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen (University of Washington) who was under a private contract with the AEC, conducted “Reproductive Radiation Tests” on 63 prison inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. He used X-rays on the testicles of 64 prisoners — later reports indicated the number of prisoners was 131 — to find the dose that would make them sterile (KD Steele. Radiation Experiments Raise Ethical Questions, 1994).

His former mentor, Dr. Carl Heller, simultaneously conducted similar experiments on 67 inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation of Seattle. These experiments were also funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The inmates agreed to participate in the experiments having been lured with cash and the suggestion of parole — $5 a month and $100 when they receive a vasectomy at the end of the trial. Most of the subjects were exposed to over 400 rads of radiation (the equivalent of 2,400 chest x-rays) in 10 minute intervals. The risks of radiation had not been disclosed to the incarcerated subjects. Mother Jones (2000) reported that declassified government documents show that NASA officials and some unnamed astronauts sat in on Heller’s meetings.