The Plutonium Files

Eileen Welsome

Part 1

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The Plutonium Files.

by Eileen Welsome.


It came on suddenly, the desire to see Italy, Texas, again. The small town had grown indistinct in my memory, a place that had become more imagined than real as the months, then years, went by. I wanted to see the sagging storefronts on Italyas Main Street, feel the clap of air conditioning on my face as I stepped from the sun-blasted emptiness into the Uptown Cafe.

On a late summer afternoon in 1997, I went back to look around. As soon as I landed at Love Field in Dallas, I got in a taxi and headed south. Though five years had elapsed since my first visit, I knew Italy was close when I began seeing the rows of freshly plowed earth, the crows diving in and out of the spent cornfields. On the edge of town was the old sign that Fredna Allen had once pointed out. It was badly weathered and nearly invisible in the shimering heat, but there was still pride in its message: WELCOME TO ITALY. THE BIGGEST LITTLE TOWN IN TEXAS.

Then I was standing on Main Street. It was just as I remembered, especially the heat, which flattened and bent down everything before it. Drifting down through the thick air came the sound of a lawnmower, the metallic confusion of an engine that wouldnat start.

Film crews from all over the world had pa.s.sed through Italy to interview Fredna, the widow of Elmer Allen, but the intense media exposure had left no outward mark, no trace of worldliness, on the small community. Italy looked punch-drunk and haggard beneath the ashy sky, too far gone for some Dallas investor to turn into a quaint version of what it was and always had been: a rural town tethered to the boom-and-bust cycles of cotton. Although there was nothing faintly Mediterranean about the place, many years ago someone from the post office in Washington, D.C., had suggested the village change its name from Houston Creek to Italy.1 Most of the stores were still vacant, the names of defunct businesses stenciled across the display windows. Out of a sense of respect, tact perhaps, sheets of brown paper were drawn down over many of the storefronts. Not all hope had been abandoned though. A new video store and a beauty salon had staked out s.p.a.ce a few doors down from City Hall. And a block or two from the grim desolation of Main Street there were pockets of cool tranquility, neighborhoods with green lawns and white, two-story houses. With their awnings and screened-in porches, the homes had the stately air of Italyas more prosperous decades.

In this unlikely place, I had found the first solid evidence that would help me unravel a story that began at the dawn of the atomic age. Just four months before two bombs were dropped on j.a.pan, the doctors of the U.S. Armyas Manhattan Project, the top-secret wartime machine that built the first atomic bomb, embarked on a human experiment so closely guarded that many details remained cla.s.sified for fifty years.

Beginning in April of 1945 and continuing through July of 1947, eighteen men, women, and even children, scattered in quiet hospital wards across the country, were injected with plutonium. Urine and stool specimens were collected in jars, packed into wooden crates, and shipped to the Manhattan Projectas laboratory in Los Alamos for a.n.a.lysis. Some of the patients were close to death when they were injected; others, including some mistakenly believed to be mortally ill, would live for many years. Most went to their graves without knowing what had been done to them.

I came across the story in 1987, just a few months after I began working at the Albuquerque Tribune, a small afternoon newspaper in New Mexico. One late-spring morning, while thumbing through a dense report describing the Air Forceas efforts to clean up its waste sites throughout the United States, I noticed that several dumps at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque were on the list. Buried in the dumps were radioactive animal Although this didnat seem like much of a story, I have always loved animals and the disclosure caught my eye. What kind of animals were buried in those dumps, I wondered, and why were they radioactive?

I called around and eventually learned that the animals had been used in radiation experiments. Many of the technical papers written about the studies were stored at what was then called the Air Force Special Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland. When I made inquiries there, a spokesman for the weapons lab a.s.sembled a stack of these papers and told me I was welcome to come to the base and read them.

A couple of days later I drove over to Kirtland, showed my driveras license to the guards, and was waved on through. The official from the weapons lab escorted me to the bas.e.m.e.nt, where I was told to take a seat at a long wooden conference table. On the table were the reports I had requested. Once the public information officer had departed, I looked around. Nearby was a walk-in vault where both cla.s.sified and uncla.s.sified doc.u.ments were stored. The heavy black door, which had a huge, 1950s-style tumbler lock, had been left ajar, and I could see hundreds of doc.u.ments on the shelves. Although I didnat know it at the time, the base had been a major launching site for many Cold War missions.

The reports were stiff with age and smelled of dust. As I pried the pages apart, I felt certain they hadnat been read in many decades. I soon realized I wasnat going to find a story that afternoon, but, having requested all those papers, felt obliged to read on. I was about to pack it in when my eye fell on a footnote describing a human plutonium experiment. The information jolted me deeply. One minute I was reading about dogs that had been injected with large amounts of plutonium and had subsequently developed radiation sickness and tumors. Suddenly there was this reference to a human experiment. I wondered if the people had experienced the same agonizing deaths as the animals.

I jotted down the citation. The following day I began my research at the University of New Mexico library. Naively I thought I might be the first to abreaka this forty-year-old story, but I soon discovered that Science Trends, a small publication in Washington, D.C., had gotten there first with an article in 1976. The injections had also been the centerpiece of a 1986 congressional report, which had attracted some press coverage.

In none of these placesa"Science Trends, the newspaper articles, or the congressional reporta"were the patients identified by name. They were known by code numbers only. I wondered who these people were; what happened to them after they left the hospital with the silvery, radioactive metal circulating in their veinsa"if they ever left at all, that is.

In the months and years that followed, I worked on the story in my spare timea"tracking down technical reports, talking to scientists, and filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the Department of Energy, the modern-day successor to the Manhattan Project. The DOE sent me a few of paper, on which anything that might have helped me to identify the patients seemed to have been deleted. Those, they told me, were all the department possessed on the long-ago study. I knew from my reading that there was much more information available and that the DOE was not complying with either the spirit or the letter of the Freedom of Information Act. At Los Alamos, an official denied that such an experiment occurreda"despite the fact that it had been described in the 1986 congressional report. The bureaucratic stonewalling was infuriating and only served to increase my determination to uncover the patientsa ident.i.ties.

I put the interview notes, the reports, the doc.u.ments in a manila folder and filed it away. Every few months Iad pull out the folder, hoping to find something that had been overlooked. Using the skimpy data, I gradually developed profiles of the patients. I put the information on eighteen sheets of yellow, legal-pad papera"one for each patient. I knew their race and gender; their birth and, in some cases, their death dates; the hospitals where they were injected; and the diseases they suffered from. But I didnat know their names and, quite frankly, never thought I would.

In the fall of 1991, I went to Stanford University on a John S. Knight Fellowship and left my folder behind. It was a year in which we were encouraged to set aside the deadlines of daily journalism and explore the riches of the university. So I didnat work on the story at all that year. But my first week back on the job, in July of 1992, I pulled out the folder again. In an almost absentminded way, I shuffled through the papers. Suddenly, on the page in front of me, two words that the DOE had neglected to delete jumped out. These were the words that would finally unlock the story. There must have been something about seeing them afresh that jolted me into awareness. The doc.u.ment stated that one of the government scientists had written ato a physician in Italy, Texas, about contacting patient CAL-3a.a I didnat know where Italy was, but I knew a lot about aCAL-3a from the crude profile I had developed.2 He was an African American who would be about eighty years old if he were still alive. Doctors plunged a hypodermic needle loaded with plutonium into CAL-3as left calf on July 18, 1947, in a San Francisco hospital.3 He was the last of the eighteen patients injected. Three days later the left leg was amputated at midthigh for what was thought to be a preexisting bone cancer.

I got out a map of Texas and began looking for Italy. It was a small dot nearly swamped by the snarl of interstate highways that spoked out from Dallas. I knew I could find CAL-3 in Italy even if it meant going door to door. But, as it turned out, locating him was not that difficult. I called Italyas City Hall and described the man I was looking for.

aYouare looking for Elmer Allen,a a woman on the other end told me, abut he died a year ago. Do you want his wifeas number?a Suddenly the windowless press room seemed to be swimming with light, but I think it was because I was holding my breath. The minute I got the number, I thanked the lady, hung up, and dialed Mrs. Allen. she answered on the first or second ring. Without going into a lot of detail, I described a little of what I knew about the experiment. Fredna Allen was very pleasant but didnat want to meet with me until she had discussed the matter with her daughter, Elmerine Allen Whitfield. When I asked Mrs. Allen if I could contact Elmerine directly, she readily agreed and gave me her number in Dallas.

Elmerine listened intently while I told her about the experiment and why I thought her father had been one of the patients. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of silence, she said, aOkay. You can come on.a she gave me instructions to her home and said that her mother would meet us there.

The following afternoon I arrived in Dallas and checked into a hotel near the airport. Since I wasnat scheduled to meet Fredna and Elmerine until the following morning, I decided to drive down to Italy. When I pulled into one of the parking s.p.a.ces on Main Street, a glaze of heat and dust lay over everything. The town seemed completely deserted, as if everybody were off at a funeral. The storefronts looked like they had been punched from cardboard. Suddenly the possibility that Elmer Allen and CAL-3 were the same person seemed like a long shot. What could Italy, Texas, have to do with the Manhattan Project? But luck was with me that day.

When I stepped out of my car, I saw an African American man who could have been anywhere from sixty to eighty years old sitting on one of the benches. He had just slipped off his leather cowboy boots and was wriggling his feet in obvious relief. His name was Joe Speed. I asked him if he knew Elmer Allen. They had been good friends, he told me. We talked for a little while. Then I asked him if Elmer had ever said anything about how he lost his leg or the long-ago hospitalization in San Francisco.

Joe Speedas eyes swept the deserted street and then focused on a spot somewhere in front of his feet. Elmer, he began, had talked about the doctors who bustled in and out of his hospital room apracticinga to be doctors. aHe told me they put a germ cancer in his leg.4 They guinea-pigged him. They didnat care about him getting well. He told me he would never get well.a Joe Speed delivered this information swiftly, then looked at me sideways as if to say he didnat believe the story either. But his comments were a powerful confirmation that Elmer and CAL-3 were the same person.

The following morning I met with Fredna at Elmerineas house, a large, four-bedroom in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. Before I arrived, Elmerine had gotten out a dictionary and looked up the word aplutoniuma for her mother. As we sat at the kitchen table and talked, the awkwardness between us gradually evaporated. Fredna had taught school for thirty-five years and had a sweet, trusting disposition. Elmerine was a school teacher too, but she had come of age in the 1960s and had stood on picket lines in college. She was outspoken and had opinions on just about everything.

Fredna brought several doc.u.ments to the interview, including an old blue mimeographed itinerary of a trip that she and Elmer had taken to a hospital in Rochester, New York, in 1973, some twenty-six years after the injection. I knew from my research that CAL-3 was one of the three survivors whom scientists had examined in Rochester as part of a follow-up study of the plutonium experiment. None of the doctors ever told Fredna that the real purpose of their study was to measure the plutonium circulating in her husbandas body.

The dates on Frednaas records matched exactly the dates on my doc.u.ments. Her recollections were also consistent with what I knew about CAL-3. By the time the interview was over, I was certain that I had finally found one of the patients. Fredna and Elmerine were also convinced. Although the knowledge of the experiment would cause her a lot of sadness in the years to come, Fredna was a deeply religious woman and her initial reaction was mild. aIam not angry,a she began carefully.5 aIt just gives me a better view of how people will do you when they feel like you donat know better.a But Elmerineas response was much harsher. In a curt voice that she undoubtedly used when she was trying to bring her eighth-grade cla.s.s to order, she said, aIam very upset, but being African American, I stay angry about a lot of things.a6 With the trip to Italy, Texas, the process of transforming the plutonium patients from numbers into human beings had begun. CAL-3 was not just a laboratory animal who provided scientists with a wealth of data about how plutonium was deposited in muscle and bone. He was husband to Fredna, father to Elmerine and her brother, William; a man who cleaned bricks, upholstered chairs, repaired shoes, and plowed the rich dark soil the farmers called black gumbo.

When I returned from Italy, I worked on the story full time for another two months. Then the political season was upon us and other a.s.signments got in the way. But the story now had a momentum of its own. The newspaperas attorneys filed a new, meticulously worded Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Energy. With near-daily prodding from attorney Loretta Garrison, the doc.u.ments began trickling in. In the spring of 1993, I returned to the story full time; and, in the s.p.a.ce of a few months, I had pieced together the ident.i.ties of another four people who had been injected with plutonium. They too became real: Albert Stevens, an easygoing house painter; John Mousso, a mild-mannered handyman; Eda Schultz Charlton, a shy, nervous housewife; and Fred Sours, the much-beloved town supervisor of a suburb near Rochester. Although Sours died soon after the injection, the rest would live for decades, plagued by a myriad of physical ailments.

About sixteen months after that trip to Italy, the Tribune published the first of a three-day series on the experiment. When the first installment rolled off the press, I sat at my desk expectantly, waiting for calls from outraged readers. I didnat get one phone call from the public that day, but reporters from the hometowns where the five patients lived began calling to get more information, and a few reporters from j.a.pan contacted me. Still, the story went largely unnoticed by the national media until Department of Energy Secretary Hazel OaLeary, who had been appointed less than a year earlier, officially condemned the experiment at a December 7, 1993, press conference, which she had called to announce the DOEas new policy of openness and candor. Speaking toward the end of the conference, OaLeary said what she had just learned of the experiment horrified her: aI was appalled and shocked. It gave me an ache in my gut and heart.a7 Soon after OaLearyas press conference, President Clinton directed the federal agencies to make public any records dealing with the human radiation experiments. He also appointed the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments to look into the controversy. As the doc.u.ments on the plutonium experiment poured from the government warehouses and people used in other experiments came forward, it became apparent that the story was much bigger than anyone had imagined. It turned out that thousands of human radiation studies had been conducted during the Cold War. Almost without exception, the subjects were the poor, the powerless, and the sicka"the very people who count most on the government to protect them, Clinton would later point out.

Many of the Manhattan Project doctors who took part in the plutonium injections showed up as advisors or partic.i.p.ants in the postwar studies. Although they played a key role in the experiments, they had only supporting parts in the bomb project. They were on a first-name basis with such legendary figures as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, but they themselves have remained among historyas obscure players. During the Manhattan Project, their job was to protect the health and safety of workers at a time when little was known about the effects of radiation on healthy people. Fearing a cancer epidemic among the projectas employees, they embarked upon a crash course to learn everything they could about the effects of radiation delivered externally or internally through the ingestion or inhalation of radioactive materials. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only intensified the urgency of their research. What did radiation do to human genes, reproductive organs, and fetuses?

With the building of the atomic bomb, an industry equivalent in size to General Motors had been born in the United States. After the war, the lavishly expensive atmospheric testing of atomic bombs began at the Pacific Proving Ground, and the Nevada Test Site. Responding to these developments, medical researchers found ever-new areas of inquiry to pursue. In closed-door meetings in Los Alamos and Washington, D.C., they and other scientists investigated such issues as how much radioactive strontium Americaas children were collecting in their bones from fallout and how many more bombs could be exploded before the radioactivity would exceed a level that the doctors had deemed safe.

In addition to studies focused specifically on issues relating to the bomb and its fallout products, many other experiments used supposedly harmless amounts of radioactive materials, so-called tracer doses, to investigate questions relating to human metabolism. Officials of the early Atomic Energy Commission, the civilian department that succeeded the Manhattan Project in 1947, promoted radioisotopes with a missionarylike zeal. Doctors and scientists desperately hoped the splitting of the atom would produce something good for humankind, possibly even a cure for cancer. Radioisotopes produced in the Manhattan Projectas nuclear reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, were shipped to qualified scientists throughout the world. Over the years the aradioisotope distribution program,a which began partially as a public relations ploy to show that the bomb builders were willing to share information with civilian outsiders, grew by leaps and bounds.

Some radioisotope research conducted by civilian scientists contributed to a better understanding of how the human body works and to the development of new diagnostic tools to detect cancer and other diseases. But many studies were repet.i.tive, poorly conceived, and frequently the subjects did not know what they were being given. Like the plutonium experiment, which was flawed in design and led to some erroneous conclusions, they were not just immoral science, they were bad science.

The Army, Navy, and Air Force also funded numerous experiments designed to help them learn more about how to fight effectively on the nuclear battlefield. What were the effects of shock, blast, and radiation on ships, planes, tanks, and, most critically, men? Were there efficient ways to decontaminate men and machinery? As the narrator of one recently decla.s.sified film about the testing program explained in 1952, aWeare trying every angle and every gadget we can to find out what really happens when an atomic bomb kicks out fiercely at the world around it.a8 Radiation experiments on soldiers began in 1951, the year atomic bomb tests began in Nevada. They continued until 1962, when above-ground tests were halted. Military troops were used in psychological tests, decontamination experiments, flashblindness studies, research involving flights through radioactive clouds, and studies aimed at measuring radioisotopes in their body fluids.

Many of the military experiments also were repet.i.tive and poorly planned. Thomas Shipman, the Los Alamos scientist who guided the labas health division through much of the Cold War, complained in 1952 that some of the armed forcesa studies appeared to be the asame old chestnuts being pulled out of the fire again and again.a9 Five years later Shipman was still complaining about the militaryas haphazard involvement. aFrom past experience we know all too well that everybody wants to get into the act.10 And all too frequently we find within [the] military establishment anxious souls who have had no opportunity to familiarize themselves with what has already been done.a The researchers were a curious blend of spook, scientist, and soldier. Many were physicians who swore by the Hippocratic Oath, yet were willing to administer to their unwitting patients everything from radioactive a.r.s.enic to radioactive zinc. Those who were motivated by patriotism, especially scientists who had seen the ravages of two world wars, firmly believed the development and testing of nuclear weapons was essential to maintaining the security of the United States. Shrewd and sophisticated, they were preoccupied with public relations and obsessed with the fear that someone would file a lawsuit against the Manhattan Project or its successors for some imagined illness arising from radiation exposure. Negative publicity and lawsuits, they worried, would jeopardize the nuclear weapons program.

They downplayed the amount of radioactive pollution emanating from the bomb factories and the health risks of fallout, reasoning that a few extra leukemias, bone cancers, or genetic mutations were an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect in the struggle against communism. aPeople have got to learn to live with the facts of life, and part of the facts of life are fallout,a said Willard Libby, a chemist who was awarded the n.o.bel Prize for developing the radiocarbon dating technique.11 When I returned to Italy, Texas, in August of 1997, ten years had elapsed since I found the footnote describing the plutonium injections. Thanks in large part to the ma.s.sive releases of material that began in 1994, my thin manila envelope had grown to eight filing cabinets. As I sat on Main Street, listening to the late-afternoon, end-of-summer sounds and the deep silence of the country, I wondered what the people of Italy thought of Elmeras story.

Though it was not yet six oaclock, nearly every store on Main Street was closed. City Hall was locked tight. So was the Uptown Cafe. But several women were talking quietly in the Magic Mirror Beauty Salon, one of the new businesses that had come to town. When I asked them if they had ever heard of Elmer Allen, they all began talking at one. aI read something about that in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.a aDidnat they test something on him when he was in the Army?a aHis widow still lives here, I think.a aIsnat she rich on account of that?a Fredna did still live in Italy and had received a substantial settlement from the government. But she had not moved out of the small house that she shared with Elmer for so many decades. She had aged rapidly and had begun using a walker to get around. While she was still gracious, a guardedness had crept in and she no longer gave interviews. But Elmer-ine, who as a child had been sent out to Italyas fields with her brother to pick cotton, had become more outspoken than ever. She often said she couldnat imagine going through life without knowing what had happened to her father. Although theirs had been a complicated and combative relationship, the knowledge had helped her better understand him.

On my way out of town, I swung by the cemetery. Sitting astride a lawnmower, a man in a broad-brimmed hat was working his way around the headstones. Down a hill behind this beautifully manicured swath of green is another collection of graves where Italyas African Americans are buried. Elmer Allen is there. On my first trip to Italy, Elmer had been dead only a year and the gra.s.s had not yet grown back over the chalky soil where he was buried. Now the gra.s.s lay thick and undisturbed. At the head of his grave was a beautifully carved tombstone that wasnat there during my first visit. Next to the Allen family name, the inscription read: ELMER.

JAN. 26, 1911.

JULY 18, 1947.


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JULY 18, 1947.

Not overly alarmed, Mastick replaced the vial in its wooden container. Then he trotted across the hard-packed ground of the technical area to knock on the door of Dr. Hempelmannas first-aid station. He had just swallowed a significant amount of the worldas supply of plutonium. aI could taste the acid so I knew perfectly well I had a little bit of plutonium in my mouth,a he said in an interview in 1995.

Louis Hempelmannas office was just a few minutesa walk from D Building, where Mastick worked.4 With its adeluge shower bathsa and clothes-changing rooms, D Building was one of the most elaborately ventilated and costly structures at Los Alamos.5 Except for the forest of metal pipes protruding from the roof, it looked no different from the other green clapboard structures in the technical area.

Hempelmann was the medical doctor in charge of protecting technical personnel on the bomb project from aunusual hazards,a and he reported directly to J. Robert Oppenheimer.6 With his long, narrow face and wide jaw, Hempelmann wasnat handsome, but there was something refined and pleasing about his appearance. He was the son and grandson of doctors and a fine physician in his own right, although he was known to grow queasy at the sight of blood. (aLouie did his first sternal puncture on me and he almost fainted.7 Heas one of those doctors that canat stand the sight of blooda"he should have been a psychologist or something,a said Harold Agnew, one in a line of laboratory directors who succeeded Oppenheimer.) Taking great pains to keep his long face expressionless, Hempelmann listened to Mastickas account of what had happened and then left the room for a moment in order to make a frantic phone call to Colonel Stafford Warren, the affable medical director of the Manhattan Project. Hempelmann often turned to Warren, who was nearly two decades older, for advice and rea.s.surance. In his late forties when he was commissioned as an Army colonel, Warren was a big man, well over six feet tall, who exuded a breezy confidence. Unlike many of the scientists on the bomb project, who refused to join the armed forces and chafed under military control, Warren loved being in the Army. He liked the rough feel of his starched uniform, the silver eagles on his collar, the .45 revolver tucked in a holster on his belt.

Speaking on a secure telephone line from his office at the Manhattan Projectas headquarters in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Warren tried to calm Hempelmann down. He thought about the accident for a moment and then suggested that the young doctor try using a mouthwash and expectorant to remove the plutonium from the chemistas mouth. Hempelmann hung up and hurried back to the examining room where he prepared two mixtures. The first was a sodium citrate solution that would chemically combine with the plutonium in Mastickas mouth to form a soluble liquid; the second was a bicarbonate rinse that would render the material insoluble again.8 Mastick swished the solutions around in his mouth and then spit them into a beaker. The first mouthful contained almost one-half microgram of plutonium. A microgram of plutonium, which is a millionth of a gram, was considered in 1945 to be the maximum amount of plutonium that could be retained in the human body without causing harm.9 Eleven more times at fifteen-minute intervals Mastick swished the two solutions around in his mouth and then spit them into the beaker.

After the accident, Mastickas breath was so hot that he could stand six feet away and blow the needles on the radiation monitors off scale. His urine contained detectable plutonium for many years. In one of several interviews Mastick said that he was undoubtedly still excreting aa few atomsa of plutonium but had suffered no ill effects.

When the mouth washings finally were finished, Hempelmann ordered the young man to lie down on a cot. Then he pumped out his stomach several times. Carefully he transferred the stomach liquids into a tall beaker. The plutonium would have to be chemically separated from the organic matter in Mastickas stomach and mouth so it could be reused in future experiments. No scientist at the lab had ever undertaken such a task.

Hempelmann gave the young chemist a couple of breakfast waffles for his empty stomach and some Sippy alkaline powders to be taken during the day.10 Then he turned and handed him the four-liter beaker of murky liquid.

Go, he said, retrieve the plutonium.

Mastick returned to his lab with the beaker and opened his textbooks. It took a alittle rapid-fire research,a as he put it, to figure out how to separate the plutonium from the organic matter. But he didnat flinch from the task, despite the ordeal he had just been through. aSince I was the plutonium chemist at that point, I was the logical choice to recover it.a From Mastickas perspective, the mood in which all these events took place was calm, deliberate, and aalmost humorous.a But other people did not feel nearly so relaxed about what had occurred.

The day after the accident, Hempelmann sat down and wrote Stafford Warren a thank-you note. aI was sorry to bother you but was anxious to have your help and moral support.11 In retrospect, I think that the chances of the fellowas having swallowed a dangerous amount of material are slight.a Hempelmann told Warren that he believed about ten micro-grams of plutonium had entered Mastickas mouth. The mouth washings had removed all but one microgram, an infinitesimal but nevertheless hazardous amount. More important, Hempelmann thought the chemist had not inhaled any plutonium. At that time scientists knew that plutonium was extremely hazardous if it was breathed in and deposited in lung tissue. But they also were discovering that the radioactive material was not readily absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and that it could not penetrate beyond the outer layer of human skin. Thus, most of the microgram of plutonium in Mastickas mouth undoubtedly would have pa.s.sed through his digestive system and out of his body without being absorbed.

A catastrophe had been avoided, but the accident was a vivid reminder of the invisible dangers that scientists and workers were confronted with at aSite Y,a the code name for Los Alamos. The responsibilities seemed overwhelming to Hempelmann, who was only twenty-nine years old and a neophyte when it came to understanding radiation. He had been working with radioactive materials for three years. As for plutonium, he had only about six months of hands-on experience. aThere were all sorts of problems,a he admitted years later, awhich I just couldnat handle because of limited experience.a12



Research into the atomic bomb had begun in piecemeal fashion at various U.S. college campuses in 1939 when news reached America that two chemists in n.a.z.i Germany had split the uranium atom. But an all-out effort to build the bomb did not really get under way until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was brought in and a newly promoted brigadier general named Leslie Groves took charge in September of 1942. With Groves at the helm, the Manhattan Project, or Manhattan Engineer District, as it was more formally known, began the frenetic race to build an atomic bomb.

By then n.a.z.i Germany controlled much of Europe. Many of the scientists working on the bomb project were European refugees who believed Adolf Hitleras scientists were working on a similar bomb. With such a weapon, they feared it would only be a matter of time before Hitler controlled the world.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been selected by General Groves to head the Los Alamos laboratory, had crisscrossed the country in early 1943 trying to lure the nationas most eminent scientists to the remote outpost. His charisma was so great that his opponents claimed he had the uncanny ability to turn bright men, even geniuses, into slavish followers. But, in fact, he had to use all of his persuasiveness to get experienced chemists, physicists, engineers, metallurgists, and explosives experts to go to the remote laboratory.

Many were already engaged in important war work. Others thought the project was preposterous and wanted no part of it. But younger, less established men such as Don Mastick leapt at the chance to do something exciting that would also contribute to the war effort. Mastick was one of the many scientists recruited for the atomic bomb project who had been educated or worked at the premier center for nuclear physics in the United States: the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley.

In the early 1930s, when the aRad Laba was just beginning to make a name for itself in the European-dominated world of physics, the young, idealistic scientists working in its sunny cla.s.srooms and laboratories dreamed not of weapons of ma.s.s destruction but of unlocking the secrets of the universe. From the atom, they sought to learn more about the enormous energy that binds protons and neutrons together, hoping that energy could somehow be used to benefit humankind and perhaps even cure cancer. Dressed in the uniform of their generationa"unpressed suits, ties, and clean white shirtsa"they labored from dawn until dusk, sustained only by an encouraging word from one of their revered leaders, Ernest Lawrence or J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Lawrence, an experimental physicist who was only twenty-seven years old when he first arrived in Berkeley, and Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist three years younger, were transforming what had been a second-rate school into one of the most renowned inst.i.tutions in the world for nuclear physics. Both scientists were tall, blue-eyed, ambitious, and inspired a cultlike following among their students. Beneath the surface, though, were distinct differences in their personalities that would emerge over time.

Lawrence was vigorous looking, with his blond hair swept back from his forehead and his face tanned and regular as the Great Plains upon which he was raised. Save for the wire-rimmed, which gave him an intellectual appearance, he could easily have been mistaken for a businessman or football coach. His father was the president of a small teachersa college in Springfield, South Dakota; his mother, a practical matron who taught him to save water and not to swear. He worked his way through the University of South Dakota selling kitchenware from farm to farm. He continued his studies at the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago, and finally, Yale, where he was offered an a.s.sistant professorship.1 Dissatisfied with the complacency of the students and the snailas pace of his career, Lawrence packed up a bright red coupe in 1928 and headed West.2 He picked up his mother and father in South Dakota, stashed his younger brother, John, in the rumble seat, and drove on to Berkeley.

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