The Plutonium Files

Eileen Welsome

Part 2

Report Chapter

Given the scanty data, Robert Stone turned to human experimentation to get the information he needed. His first experiments were aimed at better understanding the effects of small doses of external radiation on humans. By 1943, a year after he took over the Met Lab, he was supervising three experiments at hospitals in San Francisco, New York City, and Chicago. Most subjects used in these experiments were cancer patients who were undergoing radiation treatment for their diseases but had relatively normal blood counts. Stone explained the problem this way in the introduction to the California study: The Health Division of the Metallurgical Project was faced with the problem of what changes would occur in individuals exposed to more than the tolerance dose of 0.1 roentgen on one or more days.32 It was thought that the blood picture of such individuals would show a rapid and radical change. The literature, however, contained very little information on the effect of X-ray exposure on persons with relatively normal hematological pictures, and such investigations as were reported were rather confusing because of the objectives of the studies. Hence it was considered necessary to study the effects of total-body irradiation with X-rays of varying energy on hematologically normal individuals.

In each of the three Met Laba"sponsored experiments, the patients were subjected to radiation administered over their entire bodies in a procedure called total body irradiation, or TBI. Stone maintained that total body irradiation was a bona fide procedure aimed at benefiting the patients. The Manhattan Project, he a.s.serted, was merely taking advantage of the treatments to do blood studies. But statements made by researchers at the time suggest exactly the reverse was true: The blood studies seemed to be the primary focus of the exposures and little, if any benefit accrued to the patients.

Not surprisingly, the first experiment was conducted at the University of California Hospital in San Francisco. The study began in October of 1942, shortly after Stone joined the Met Lab, and continued through June of 1946. Bertram Vojtech Adelbert Low-Beer, a mild-looking scientist with a round face and a dark fringe of neatly trimmed hair, ran the experiment while Stone was in Chicago.

Low-Beer had fled Czechoslovakia in 1939. At the urging of Mark Oliphant, an Australian physicist who had strongly encouraged the Americans to pursue the atomic bomb, Low-Beer had joined the University of Birmingham. He had just begun his radioisotope research when war broke out in England. John Lawrence invited him to the Rad Lab in Berkeley in 1941, and with a recommendation from Robert Stone, he was appointed to the medical faculty at UCSF two years later. He was a pleasant man, even jovial at times, but was known to get aextremely worked upa over sloppy or careless work, according to Stone.33 Like Robert Stone and Joseph Hamilton, Low-Beer had close ties to both the San Francisco hospital and the Rad Lab. He was an expert in the physics, chemistry, and biology of how radioactive substances behaved in human tissue.

Over the four-year period, twenty-nine patients, ranging in age from twenty to seventy-five, were irradiated at UCSF. The exposures per sitting varied from 5 to 20 roentgens and the total dosages ranged from 27 to 394 roentgens. (To put this in perspective, scientists believe 350 roentgens, delivered at one time and without counteractive measures, such as antibiotics, fluids, and bone marrow transplants, will kill 50 percent of those exposed.) The physical effects of the irradiation on the patients are unknown because the scientific paper written by Stone and Low-Beer addresses only the blood changes. Many blood samples were drawn before the radiation was administered, during the treatment itself, and for a number of weeks afterward. The two experimenters found that radiation exposure did reduce the number of blood cells, particularly white cells, circulating in the body.34 A second TBI experiment was conducted from December of 1942 until August of 1944 at Memorial Hospital in New Yorka"the hospital where Hymer Friedell and Louis Hempelmann had worked before the war. The lead experimenter was Lloyd F. Craver, a doctor who had just co-auth.o.r.ed a paper stating that TBI was a adiscouraginga treatment for patients suffering from generalized cancer. Despite his negative results, Craver conducted an experiment in which eight patients were to be irradiated with a total of 300 roentgens. The planned doses ranged from 10 to 15 roentgens per sitting. The selection of patients was the amost difficult part of the project,a Craver wrote, because the subjects had to be in good enough condition to survive athe combined effects of their disease and the irradiation for at least six months in order that some conclusions might be drawn as to later effects of the irradiation.a35 The experiment didnat work out the way Craver had hoped. Three patients died within two months of the treatment. The others continued to live for a while but did poorly. Craver blamed the deaths and deterioration to the patientsa diseases and not the radiation, concluding that asuch doses of radiation should be well tolerated by healthy persons.a36 A third TBI experiment was conducted at the Chicago Tumor Clinic beginning in March of 1943 and continuing through November of 1944. The lead investigator was J. J. Nickson, a young doctor who was only three years out of medical school.37 The fourteen subjects used in the experiment were divided into three groups. The first consisted of eight cancer patients who had aneoplasms that could not be cured but still were not extensive enough to influence general health.a The second group consisted of three patients who had illnesses that were ageneralized and chronica (one of the three was a twenty-five-year-old woman who had a history of apain and stiffness of the jointsa). The third group was composed of three healthy young white men who volunteered to be irradiated with seven roentgens a day over a three-day period. That group was of aparticular interest,a Nickson wrote, because the men most closely resembled the Met Lab workers themselves.38 Nickson found no changes in the blood counts of the three men.

Except for these three men, the TBI experiments involved sick people. Although they provided the Met Lab doctors with needed information, many questions about radiation remained: What are the first changes produced by exposures just above the tolerance level? Is the peripheral blood picture as reliable an indicator of over-exposure as radiologists have considered it to be? Are there any other changes produced that can be detected by known or newly developed clinical tests? Can a person ever recover completely and entirely from any dose of radiation big enough to produce detectable effects? Are there any methods of treatment that will aid in recovery? How much radiation is necessary to kill a man?

That was Stone, writing in 1947, when answers to those questions were still not known.39



At about the same time that the Met Labas Health Division was formed, government officials and scientists involved in the bomb-building effort decided it was time to bring in someone aggressive to oversee the entire project. The Armyas Corps of Engineers had been chosen to build the production facilities. But Colonel James C. Marshall, who was supervising the bomb project, was inclined to move cautiously. With the growing wartime demand for recruits and raw materials, the whole effort was in danger of foundering.

On September 17, 1942, Leslie Groves, a tall, pear-shaped Army general who had overseen the construction of the new Pentagon building in Washington, was appointed to head the project. Groves, a West Point graduate, had been desperately hoping for an overseas a.s.signment and was bitterly disappointed by the appointment. But the general, like Arthur Compton, was a ministeras son who had been schooled in the importance of duty. He swallowed his disappointment and got to work the next day.

Groves was a brilliant administrator who was accustomed to working long hours and handling huge budgets. He had the ability to quickly grasp situations and was willing to make decisions based on incomplete information. Unfortunately, he also had an enormous ego, an abrasive and tactless personality, and a predilection for humiliating people. Although he developed a fairly good working relationship with the company engineers and scientists who were brought into the project from Du Pont, Union Carbide, and Eastman Kodak, his relationship with the Met Lab scientists deteriorated quickly. He considered them aprima donnasa and acrackpots.a To Groves, Leo Szilarda"a man who wouldnat flush his own toilet because he considered it maidas worka"was one of the worst offenders.1 Groves often used one of his aides, Colonel Kenneth Nichols, as a go-between with Arthur Compton and the Chicago scientists. He told an interviewer in 1967, aI suspected that Compton liked Colonel Nichols more than he did me.2 Primarily because Colonel Nichols had a Ph.D. and looked very scholarly and still does, everything done with Compton was generally done through Colonel Nichols; that is, anything that was difficult. That didnat mean that I didnat see a lot of Compton. But if there was anything that was particularly touchy, I always had Nichols do it.a Groves said in his memoirs that soon after he was a.s.signed to the project he realized that he would need a scientist to coordinate the actual design, construction, and testing of the weapon. Because the other scientists who might be suitable candidates for the job were already engaged in other facets of the bomb project, he selected J. Robert Oppenheimer. aIt must have been a bitter blow to Compton to have his project pulled away from him, especially after the major success of the chain reaction at Chicago,a Leona Marshall Libby, the young scientist at the Met Lab, speculated.3 aOne should remember, in dealing with the Department of Defense, that they are trained to be killers. Especially in wartime, it is almost their duty to leave a trail of bodies behind. In a sense, Compton was a body along Grovesa trail.a Groves also decided to establish a new laboratory to design and construct the bomb in New Mexico. An isolated state, it was nevertheless accessible by train, plane, and automobile. The choice could not have pleased Oppenheimer more. He had spent summers as a youth in the Sangre de Cristos, one of the southernmost ranges of the Rocky Mountains, and had grown to love the blues and grays of the desert. Although the two labs would physically look very different, their functions were actually quite similar: The Met Labas job was to achieve a controlled chain reaction; Los Alamosas mission would be to produce an uncontrolled chain reaction.

In November of 1942, General Groves, Major John Dudley, a Manhattan District officer, Oppenheimer, and Edwin McMillan, who was helping to organize the new lab, arrived in Albuquerque and began driving in a northwesterly direction toward Jemez Springs, one of the proposed sites. Although Jemez Springs was lovely and had plenty of water, it was hemmed in by tall canyon walls. Oppenheimer felt it might have a adepressing effecta on laboratory workers; Groves gave it a thumbs-down because there was no room to expand.4 Oppenheimer then suggested that they drive over the mountains and take a look at the Los Alamos Ranch School, a private school for boys. When they arrived, it was snowing lightly and the surrounding mountains were vague as clouds. The general immediately endorsed the site for numerous reasons, including its remoteness. aThe geographically enforced isolation of the people working there lessened the ever-present danger of their inadvertently diffusing secret information among social or professional friends outside.a5 Oppenheimer was also satisfied. aMy two great loves are physics and desert country,a he once confided to a friend.6 As soon as the owners agreed to sell the boysa school, the Manhattan Project began making plans for the new lab. It would be located on a high plateau near the lip of the Jemez caldera, a huge, collapsed volcano. To the west were the Jemez Mountains; to the east, the blue, slumping line of the Sangre de Cristos; below, the muddy curl of the Rio Grande. Dominating everything was a 360-degree sky and the desert light, harsh as a camera flash at noontime, luminous in the gathering dusk.

Oppenheimer quickly began a.s.sembling his team. As in Chicago, the physicists and chemists were recruited first. Then came the medical doctors. Oppenheimer wanted John Lawrence, Ernest Lawrenceas brother, to oversee the health and safety aspects of Los Alamos, but Lawrence was already working on high-alt.i.tude studies for the Air Force.7 He suggested that Oppy look up Louis Hempelmann in St. Louis. Oppenheimer went to St. Louis and talked with Hempelmann. Impressed by the young physicianas quiet intelligence, he offered him a job.

Ever the pragmatist, Hempelmann decided to do some sleuthing around before he committed himself. He went to Chicago and talked to Robert Stone and his colleagues. They a.s.sured Hempelmann his duties would be rather simple; his main task would probably consist of taking blood counts from fifty to sixty people who might be at risk.8 Hempelmann then took a westbound train to New Mexico to have a closer look. Oppenheimer, who had arrived in Los Alamos with a few staff members on March 15, 1943, picked Hempelmann up in Santa Fe. Up the canyon they went, following a primitive road that the Corps of Engineers was trying to make pa.s.sable for the heavy trucks that would soon be arriving with cyclotrons, accelerators, tons of steel, and miles of piping. Until enough housing could be built, the scientists lived at nearby ranches and dined on box lunches brought in from Santa Fe.9 Often they were forced to go hungry because the automobiles carrying the food broke down or had flats on the rough roads.

The lab was little more than a military post. The crude living conditions and barbed-wire fences may have given Hempelmann some pause, but he nevertheless agreed to take the job. He returned to St. Louis and packed up his belongings. He and his wife, Elinor, arrived in Los Alamos in April of 1943.

While Hempelmann was setting up his small office, Allied forces were winning key victories in the Pacific and in Eastern Europe.10 During the first week of April, more than one hundred bombers had swarmed over an outlying area of Paris, France, raining destruction on a n.a.z.i-controlled Renault factory. General Douglas MacArthur reported another devastating a.s.sault on the j.a.panese fleet near New Guinea. And a furious air battle had raged in Tunisia between n.a.z.i dive-bombers and American Spitfires as General George Pattonas troops hurried toward a rendezvous with the British Army.

Louis Hempelmannas first year at Los Alamos was uneventful and unhurried. He split the work with another doctor named James Nolan, a gynecologist who was an old friend and cla.s.smate. Nolan oversaw the small post hospital. Hempelmann was in charge of protecting the workers from the radiation hazards. As in Chicago, that meant establishing asafe tolerance levelsa for exposure to radiation, monitoring workers, and carrying out blood tests.

Hempelmann had a small staffa"himself, four to five blood technicians, and a part-time secretary. One of his employees was Laura Fermi, the beautiful wife of Enrico Fermi. The Fermis, like other scientists, moved to Los Alamos as work at the Met Lab slowed down and the pace in New Mexico increased. Laura Fermi was struck by Hempelmannas shyness. In a memoir, she remembered, aHe was my first paying boss a and we both acted shy.11 His embarra.s.sment showed in his easy blushing, which made him look little older than a schoolboy.a Behind Hempelmannas boyish demeanor, however, was the mind of a shrewd administrator who quickly recognized that radioactive contamination drifting off site might provoke possible lawsuits and create public relations problems down the road for Los Alamos. He fumed when his advice wasnat taken and chafed under the yoke of the plodding bureaucracy.

That first year was so leisurely that Hempelmann undoubtedly had time to explore the remote country that lay outside the laboratoryas fences. Many of the Manhattan Project scientists, particularly those raised and educated in Europe, were stunned when they got off the train at the little station near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The intoxicating light, the buoyant air, and the high elevation combined to produce a momentary vertigo. The vast distances glittered like the bottom of an ancient sea and blue mountains floated on the edges of the horizon. Here the skin of the world felt so thin it seemed that a bigger reality was about to break through. As they looked out upon the vastness, the thoughtful among them no doubt contemplated their own mortality and the fearsome weapon they had come to build.

In the winter the scientists and their wives organized ski trips across snow so light and powdery it seemed artificial. During those cold winter months, when the earth lay barren and the planet was tilted farthest from the sun, the New Mexico skies grew soft, filled with feathery clouds the color of mangos and tangerines. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the mountains east of the lab turned a luminous rose color. It was that extraordinary color which had prompted the Spanish settlers to name them the Sangre de Cristos, or blood of Christ.

In the summer the scientists hiked into the mountains or picked their way on horseback through forests and canyons filled with fantastic stone shapes. This was wild country, intimidating and lonely, country one had to acquire a taste for. an.o.body could think straight in a place like that,a the urbane Leo Szilard predicted.12 aEverybody who goes there will go crazy.a But once the brilliant landscape had permanently imprinted itself on their minds, some scientists yearned ever after to stand on ground that seemed to offer a vision of the four corners of the earth. Many never left. Others, such as Louis Hempelmann, bought second homes in New Mexico.

Hymer Friedell, a reserve officer for several years, was still working for Robert Stone in California when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Day after day he waited to be called up for active duty, but the orders never materialized. Friedell soon learned he had been put on an aessential lista by the dean of the medical school. Just thirty-one and feeling obligated to enlist in the military, Friedell told UCSF officials he must be removed from the list or he would resign. Sometime in the late summer of 1942, he got what he later described as arather odd orders.a He was inducted into the Army at the Presideo in San Francisco and then instructed to don civilian clothes and report to a Captain Craftan at 5125 University Avenue in Chicago.13 The address was the Met Lab, where his boss, Robert Stone, had begun to visit periodically. Friedell was immediately told to continue on to the Manhattan Engineer District offices in New York City. When he arrived, he learned that the Army had plans to create its own medical program.

Friedell was the first Army doctor a.s.signed to the Manhattan Project. After his trip to New York, he returned to the Met Lab, where he served as a liaison between the Army and the laboratory and helped out with medical tasks. One of his patients was Edward Teller. aHe thinks Iam the worldas greatest doctora"because I can recognize a hernia the size of my fist,a he once said.

Friedell was eventually transferred to Oak Ridge, which in mid-1943 became the new headquarters of the Manhattan Engineer District, or MED, as it was often referred to in doc.u.ments. Soon after that, Colonel Nichols named him the executive officer of the Manhattan Projectas newly established Medical Section.14 General Groves liked Friedell but felt he was too inexperienced to head the section. aYouare too young for this racket,a Friedell quoted the general as saying.15 Groves had first wanted Robert Stone for the job. During a train trip to Chicago in early 1943, the general spent several hours trying to convince Stone to enlist in the Army so that he could supervise all of the Manhattan Projectas medical programs. But Stone wasnat interested. In a letter to Arthur Compton, he explained, aGeneral Groves was not entirely satisfied but agreed with me that he would not push the Army appointment, especially since this would mean a very great financial sacrifice on my part with no greater ability to serve the country.a16 General Grovesas next choice to head up the Medical Section was Stafford Warren, who was then a professor of radiology at the University of Rochester medical school. Warren was a manas man, garrulous and full of bravado, just the kind of doctor Groves was looking for. He had a handsome, square face that was just beginning to loosen, a small brushy mustache, and a large, well-shaped nose. He was an extraordinary blend of contradictions: flamboyant and cautious, amiable and shrewd, a storyteller who kept secrets.

After some negotiation, Warren agreed to serve as a consultant to the project, but said he would not join officially unless he was given the rank of colonel. With Hymer Friedell as his guide, over the spring and summer of 1943 he gradually learned more about the bomb-building effort. At that time, Los Alamos still resembled a crude military encampment; Oak Ridge was little more than a muddy construction site filled with lumber and bulldozers; and Hanford, struggling with labor shortages and sandstorms, had yet to drive a stake for its first nuclear reactor.

On November 3, 1943, Warren received his commission as a colonel in the Army, at which time he moved his family to Oak Ridge and became a full-time member of the project. According to one written account, he showed up for work on his first day wearing combat boots and a .45 revolver strapped to his waist.17 Like the crackpots and prima donnas at Los Alamos, Warren was also a scientist, but he clearly saw himself as a military officer whose loyalty belonged to General Groves.

Although Stafford Warren was living in Rochester when Groves recruited him, he was actually another member of the ever-increasing tribe of Berkeley-trained scientists working on the bomb project. His California roots were deep, dating back to his adventurous grandfather, for whom he was named, who had lit out with his brother from Wellsville, New York, to join the California gold rush. The two brothers made about sixty-five dollars panning for gold before they turned their attention to more practical ways to earn a living: burning charcoal and tanning hides. Eventually they purchased a small ranch in Hayward, a little town near Oakland, California, and planted cherry, apricot, and pear trees. Warren grew up on that ranch, digging stumps, milking the family cow, and listening to his grandfatheras storiesa"tall and uncomplicated tales of the frontier. Later he breezed through the University of California at Berkeley and just as effortlessly sailed through four years of medical school at the University of California at San Francisco. After obtaining his medical degree in 1922, he spent three years doing postgraduate work at Johns Hopkins and Harvard. Then he was offered an a.s.sistant professorship in radiology at the new medical school being built at the University of Rochester. Before settling into Rochester, where he remained from 1925 to 1943, he toured the famous radiation laboratories in Europe with his wife, Viola.

In Paris, he met Madame Marie Curie, the recipient of two n.o.bel Prizes. The first, awarded in 1903, was a joint prize given to Curie, her husband, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel, for the discovery of radioactivity. The second, awarded in 1911, was for the isolation of pure radium. Marie Curie died of radiation-induced leukemia in 1934. By the time Warren met her, aShe was very anemic and yellowish looking,a he recalled.18 aShe had some burns on her hands and her skin was very rough.a The memory of her appearance would haunt him during his Manhattan Project days.

At the Rochester medical school, Stafford Warren had pursued several lines of experimentation, including afever therapya to treat gonorrhea. In a 1937 paper, he reported that fever therapy had shown some promise but warned that it should be undertaken only in a hospital setting and under close medical supervision.19 When the gonorrhea sufferers checked into the hospital for treatment, they were given lots of water, salt, and a sedative. Then they were taken to a aradiant energy cabinet,a where they were put into restraints and a thermometer was inserted in their The subjects were periodically examined by nurses and given additional water and salt when it was needed. When the sedatives wore off, they were given whiskey.

By increasing the patientsa body heat, the doctors hoped they could kill the infection. But some patients died first. Warren reported that a twenty-two-year-old boxer (anormal except for the presence on the right temple of an unhealed wound produced by a blow received during a recent boxing matcha) was comatose after spending twenty-four hours in the radiant heat closet.20 Twenty-two hours later he died.

When the Army surgeon general learned that Warren was to be in charge of the MEDas health and safety programs, he asked Colonel Nichols, aWhy do you want that clap doctor?a Nichols, unwilling to explain why they wanted a radiologist, responded stiffly that they had chosen Warren afor good and sufficient reasons.a21 Stafford Warren and Hymer Friedell were in charge of all matters relating to health and safety for the Manhattan Project. In Oak Ridge itself, a town of some 70,000 people that sprang up overnight, that meant overseeing everything from fly control to toxicology studies. Warren was particularly dismayed by the diet of the acolored peoplea who worked in Oak Ridge. Many drank Coca-Cola and ate potato chips and chocolate bars for breakfast, a menu so intolerable to Warren that he sent some of his men out to lecture on the advantages of drinking milk. On the subject of their diet, he recalled: Of course, the colored people wanted chitlins.22 It took us about a month to figure out what achitlinsa were. Finally the cafeteria manager ordered a barrel of entrails of chicken from the Chicago chicken cleaning place. It just stunk like the devil when it was opened; but by this time they had a colored person there, too, to supervise it. This was just deep-fried. The stench going downwind was fantastic, but they thought it was wonderful. And after that we had peace.

*** You are reading on ***

General Groves enforced a policy of strict compartmentalization in order to protect the secrecy of the project: aMy rule was simple and not capable of misinterpretationa"each man should know everything he needed to know to do his job and nothing else.23 Adherence to this rule not only provided an adequate measure of security, but it greatly improved overall efficiency by making our people stick to their knitting.a But Warren and Friedell were not required to adhere as rigidly to their aknittinga and actually knew more of what was going on than many senior scientists. Recalled Friedell, aWhen the general decided that the Army would keep its finger on everything, we really didnat have operational authority, but we had, if you will, informational authority.24 That is, we found out everything that was going on, and we became aware of it, and every once in a while he would ask us what was going on.a Groves seemed to have a soft spot for the doctors, Friedell added. aHe thought we had some special secret, the laying on of hands or whatever.a25 But the doctors often fell to squabbling among themselves. Louis Hempelmann didnat get along with Joseph Hamilton. And Stafford Warren and Hymer Friedell were forced to handle Robert Stone with kid gloves. Aware of Stoneas p.r.i.c.kly and stubborn nature, they attempted to guide his research program by gentle suggestions rather than outright orders. aWe wouldnat go and say, aHey, donat do work on these ratsa"do this.a26 We wouldnat do it that way. We would really have to go and say, aWe think there is more need to do this, or our basic problems are as follows aa a Friedell once told a colleague.

The Los Alamos group could not try out their approach until a contamination-free laboratory was ready in February.47 The test was first used on Los Alamos employees in March of 1945, and the initial results shocked Hempelmann. aThey were just frightfully high. My G.o.d, we were just terrified because they suggesteda"I mean, if they were truea"if that much plutonium was being excreted, the workers would have G.o.d knows how much plutonium.aa48 The lab began sending employees home for two days. Then the workers reported back to the hospital, where they showered and washed their hair, changed into hospital garments, and provided urine specimens for the next twenty-four hours. With those procedures in place, the plutonium detected in the urine dropped dramatically, suggesting the contamination was coming from the workersa hands and clothes.

Still, the Langham test was inconclusive. With the process, the Manhattan Project doctors could measure the level of plutonium in urine or stools. But what fraction of the total body burden did the excreted amount represent? To answer that question, they needed a human being in whom they could inject a known amount of plutonium and measure the rate at which the material was excreted. If scientists knew the excretion rate, they would then be able to extrapolate from urine and stool samples how much plutonium remained in the body of a worker who had suffered an accidental exposure.

The time had come to take the inevitable next stepa"a step that would cast its shadow over the Manhattan District and its successor agencies for the next five decades. Only a human experiment would confirm the usefulness of Langhamas test. aIt was not until the first human tracer experiment had been performed in April 1945 (with the help of the medical section of the Manhattan District) that the above tests could be evaluated with any degree of certainty,a Hempelmann later wrote.49



In late March of 1945, Louis Hempelmann checked out a sedan from the motor pool and drove down to Santa Fe to pick up Hymer Friedell. The trip down the canyon was harrowing even for those scientists who didnat have Hempelmannas delicate const.i.tution: thirty-five miles of dust and curves and one swooping bridge, ten feet wide and two hundred fifty feet long, to cross.

Friedell, clad in a brown Army uniform, had come from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Warren had come to rely heavily on Friedell: aI used him for my acrying wall,a you might say,a Warren remembered years later.1 aI tried my ideas out on him and if he thought they were good, fine; if he didnat then Iad look for the problem.a Hempelmann and Friedell rumbled past the Indians hawking their wares on the Santa Fe Plaza and then headed in a northwesterly direction back toward Los Alamos. Despite the Corps of Engineersa efforts to smooth the road, it was so narrow and b.u.mpy from rainstorms and heavy traffic that the sedans often had to be sent to the motor pool for repairs following the punishing trips. The two doctors stopped once to fix a flat tire somewhere between the bosque, the lush cottonwood forest that outlines the Rio Grande, and the bone-colored cliffs that mark the last dusty miles into Los Alamos.2 Above them, hawks rode the spring thermals, their eyes probing the powdery red vistas for prey. The air was dry enough to cause nosebleeds.

As the dark sedan inched up the switchbacks, climbing higher and higher into the sky, now a vast blue, the two doctors may have talked of the upcoming meeting. Or they may have judged the matter too sensitive and stuck to chitchat about the war. The nationas attention had been riveted on Iwo Jima, a small island in the Pacific, where one of the bloodiest battles of the war was winding down. The Fourth and Fifth Marine divisions had gone from hole to hole and from cave to cave trying to wrest the small island from the j.a.panese. They had succeeded, but at a heavy price: 5,885 Marines had been killed and 17,272 wounded. Using Iwo Jima as a forward air base, Major General Curtis LeMayas B-29s began their devastating, nightly firebomb raids on Tokyo and other major j.a.panese cities. Although j.a.pan soon realized it was doomed to be defeated militarily, its troops fought on ferociously, determined to take as many Americans to the grave with them as they could.

In Europe, the war was drawing to a close. The Allies were ma.s.sing at the Rhine River, Germanyas traditional western frontier. Staring defeat in the face, Hitler vowed to continue the war and ordered that anything which might be of use to the enemies of Germany be destroyed. Fortunately, Albert Speer, his minister of armaments and war, and a handful of Army officers were able to convince industrialists and politicians to ignore Hitleras scorched-earth instructions.

In Los Alamos, the atomic bomb project was moving forward at a relentless pace. Beginning on February 2, 1945, the first kilogram amounts of plutonium had begun arriving from Hanford.3 The bomb material, which was in the form of a thick, jellylike mixture, was placed into shielded, wooden boxes and transported by Army ambulances. Ambulances were chosen because they were seen all over the country and raised no suspicions.4 As an added precaution, the drivers, who did not know what they were transporting, were instructed to take different routes and avoid stopping at the same places to eat. Occasionally Colonel Franklin Matthias, the military officer in charge of Hanford, would have counterintelligence officers tail the ambulances to make sure the drivers werenat developing habits that might endanger their precious cargoes. At Fort Douglas, Utah, the ambulance drivers would deposit their boxes with a military officer and drive back to Hanford. Los Alamos drivers then would pick up the boxes and take them on to the lab. There were usually two trips per week.

The deliveries, Hempelmann admitted in a sworn deposition taken in 1979 on behalf of a former worker who was suing the lab, were about ten times what the laboratory could handle safely. The contamination grew so severe, he added, that aif it had not been that we had to get the bomb made as soon as possible, all work would have stopped.a5 The plutonium quickly spread beyond the confines of the technical area. The wind, always an unpredictable companion in the desert, undoubtedly picked up a few stray atoms and scattered them beyond the fences. But most of the plutonium that slipped beyond the site came from the labas waste water, which initially was dumped into the streams and canyons that angled down from the mesa. Los Alamos and Pueblo creeks were crackling with radioactivity.6 It was highest where the water from the contaminated laundry drained into Los Alamos Creek. Along the laundry ditch, plutonium measured 144,000 disintegrations per minute per liter, about 325 times the allowable amount of plutonium that can be released into sewers today.7 Hempelmann warned that the contaminated canyons, while not a health hazard, presented the lab with serious legal problems: Itas quite possible that future illnesses or diseases contracted by a person who has blundered into a contaminated area may be connected by this person with his contact with radioactive materials.8 Unless we can state categorically that all contaminated areas have been completely enclosed by child-proof and dog-proof fences, it will be extremely difficult to convince a jury that the project was not at fault. The cost of good fencing, although considerable, would undoubtedly be less than that of one or two successful lawsuits against the project. In addition to the monetary aspects of such court proceedings, the bad public relations which would result would cause the project inestimable harm.

At a laboratory meeting more than two decades later, Thomas Ship-man said, aEverybody had his own contaminated dump.9 Today we think we know where all of these were, but I wouldnat want to guarantee it.a The contamination drifted down the canyons, swept along in the raging waters that materialized suddenly when storms lashed the mesa. Scientists detected plutonium in the Rio Grande, one of the great rivers of the West, only four years after the material had been discovered by Glenn Seaborg and his colleagues in Berkeley.10 Friedell had made the long, arduous trip to Los Alamos to discuss the human plutonium experiment the laboratory had been moving toward even before the vial had exploded in Don Mastickas face. Friedell, like the Los Alamos scientists, knew that human guinea pigs would be needed to learn more about how plutonium was metabolized and excreted in the body. In a memorandum written two months before the meeting, which was not decla.s.sified until 1994, Friedell stated: aIn conjunction with the experiments conducted on animals, it is expected that on selected human subjects tracer studies with product [plutonium] would be made.a11 On Friday, March 23, 1945, Friedell sat down with Louis Hempelmann and other Los Alamos doctors and scientists to hash out details of the proposed experiment.12 Oppenheimer, who had grown so anxious over the bomb project that he sometimes was forced to take sleeping pills, aoccasionallya dropped in, recalled Friedell, who was one of the only people still alive in the 1990s who attended the meeting and had firsthand knowledge of the experiment.13 The animosity between Los Alamos and Manhattan Project headquarters in Oak Ridge had been increasing steadily, and the meeting undoubtedly was tense. Both Hempelmann and Oppenheimer felt the Manhattan Project had not come through with the help they had been promised. Originally Los Alamos had planned to leave the biological studies to other sites, but the lab was not getting the answers it needed quickly enough and had begun its own research program.14 Friedell told DOE interviewers in 1995 that he wasnat aterribly enthusiastica about the experiment but felt it needed to be done.15 aNow my own recollection is that Dr. Hempelmann was in favor of the program, but he wasnat wildly enthusiastic.16 I would say that the one that was more enthusiastic, was pushing this more, was Wright Langham.a Until the war intervened, Langhamas future had looked like an unbroken stream of quiet days on the plains, studying the swirling patterns of sun-parched soil and conferring with ranchers on improving the yield of their cattle herds. Born in Winsburro, Texas, in 1911, Langham graduated in 1934 from Oklahoma Panhandle A&M College in Goodwell and received a masteras in chemistry from Oklahoma A&M College in Still-water a year later.17 His aingenious studies of patterns of soil drifting in the dust bowl,a wrote Louis Hempelmann, so impressed the head of the University of Coloradoas biochemistry department that Langham was invited to enroll as a Ph.D. candidate.18 After obtaining his doctoral degree in organic chemistry, Langham worked for a year as a research chemist at the Met Lab in Chicago and then transferred to Los Alamos in March of 1944 where he helped to develop the detection technique for plutonium. Over the next decades, he became one of the worldas leading experts in the toxicology of plutonium, earning him the nickname Mr. Plutonium from his colleagues.

Langham was extremely bright but unsuited for the delicate tasks of the laboratory. His hands trembled so much that once he accidentally p.r.i.c.ked himself with a needle filled with plutonium while trying to inject a rat, Louis Hempelmann recalled. aHe came over to see me, and he was the most embarra.s.sed person I think I have seen in my life.a19 Langham was hard driving, immensely ambitious, and often impatient. But beneath the exterior, Hempelmann observed, was an aunderlying gentleness and good will.a20 By the time Langham reached Los Alamos, the Oklahoma Panhandle, with its stench of feed lots and sound of bawling cattle, was a distant memory. Langham was a pipe-smoking scientist, all tweeds and bowties, with a thin mustache stenciled across his upper lip.

Now here he was taking part in a discussion about a human experiment. In the preceding months, at laboratories in Rochester, Chicago, Berkeley, and Los Alamos, dogs, rats, mice, and even rabbits had been injected with plutonium or forced to breathe in large amounts of plutonium-contaminated air. Then their bodies or organs were reduced to ashes in ovens and dissolved in acid, and the plutonium was extracted and measured. As expected, the animals who received the largest amounts suffered severe damage and death. Hemorrhages appeared on internal organs. Spleens, thymus glands, and adrenals shrunk dramatically. Livers turned yellow and necrotic. Lymphomas and bone sarcomas were induced. Precancerous conditions appeared at injection sites, and rats that breathed in the vapors developed acute pneumonia.

Although the scientists initially believed that plutonium was fifty times less hazardous than radium, by the spring of 1945 they had begun to realize that plutonium in larger amounts could actually be thirty times more hazardous than radium.21 From their animal studies, they had discovered that plutonium gravitated to more vulnerable parts of the body than radium. Radium deposited itself in mineralized bone, which is generally

*** You are reading on ***

Popular Novel