The Plutonium Files

Eileen Welsome

Part 7

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aItas a little c.o.c.ktail. Itall make you feel better,a she recalled the doctor saying.

aWell, I donat know if I ought to be drinking a c.o.c.ktail,a she responded, her voice light and bantering.

aDrink it all,a he told her. aDrink it on down.a The concoction was fizzy and sweet, like a cherry It wasnat bad tasting.

Three months later Helen was rolled into the delivery room. The nausea had not let up during her pregnancy. She had gained only six pounds and never even had to wear maternity clothes. Six hours after her labor began, a al.u.s.ty crya announced the entrance of her daughter, Barbara, into the world. The infantas skin was so smooth and white she looked like a porcelain doll. The mother and her newborn were discharged five days later. Both seemed healthy.

The bizarre health problems that were to plague mother and daughter began several months later. Helenas face swelled up and water blisters appeared on the right side. aYou could draw a line right down through the middle of my face,a she remembered. Then her hair fell out and she began to tire easily. In the ensuing years she had two miscarriages. The internal hemorrhaging was so severe during the second one that she had to have sixteen blood transfusions. She now suffers from pernicious anemia and is extremely sensitive to sunlight.

Barbara also felt exhausted through most of her childhood and now suffers from an immune system disorder and skin cancer. When she was about eleven, the lymph nodes under her arms swelled inexplicably. aShe was always really sleepy,a Helen remembered. aShead come in from school in the afternoons and have to lay down and take a nap. The other kids would say, aWhy donat you come out and play?a and shead say, aI will, after I take my nap.a a As it turns out, Helen was one of 829 women who pa.s.sed through the prenatal clinic between roughly September 1945 and May of 1947 and were given the strange-tasting c.o.c.ktails to drink. Like Helen, many of the women were led to believe that the drinks contained something nutritious that would benefit them and their babies. But nothing could have been farther from the truth. The drinks actually contained varying amounts of radioactive iron. Within an hour the material crossed the placenta and began circulating in the blood of their unborn infants.

Paul Hahn, an enthusiastic researcher in his thirties, may have looked down the hall and seen the rows of young female patients as he dashed back and forth between the clinic and his laboratory. He had arrived at Vanderbilt University in 1943 with a stack of published reports and five yearsa experience using radioisotopes. He was five feet eleven inches tall, weighed 185 pounds, and was described by a colleague as aan energetic and competent investigator equipped with imagination and ingenuity and fired by an insatiable curiosity.a2 Hahn had been a protege of Stafford Warrenas at the University of Rochester, where he obtained his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1936.3 There, he had collaborated on several experiments with William Bale, the dour-looking scientist who oversaw Strong Memorial Hospitalas metabolic ward, and Joseph Howland, the young Manhattan Project doctor who later said he injected Ebb Cade with plutonium. Hahn had also studied under Robley Evans at MIT. During the war he frequently attended Manhattan Project meetings in Oak Ridge, and after it ended he was recruited for Operation Crossroads. One of the first scientists to take advantage of the Atomic Energy Commissionas radioisotope distribution program, Hahn had received the largest number of radioisotope shipments in the country in 1947.

The radioactive iron experiment Hahn was doing at Vanderbilt was a subset of a large nutrition study.4 Partially funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the study focused on how a womanas diet and nutrition would affect her pregnancy and delivery, and the condition of her infant. William Darby, a young nutritionist, was in charge of the overall study. Many decades later he said that one reason he undertook the study was because the poor living conditions, eating habits, and water supplies of people living in the South at that time were equivalent to those found in underdeveloped countries. aThere were signs on the roadside showing which towns had healthy water.a5 The radioactive iron experiment was simple and straightforward. During the first visit to the clinic, a baseline blood sample was drawn and physical exam conducted by William Darby or one of his colleagues.6 The radioactive iron was administered during the second visit, and on the third visit, blood samples were drawn from the women to measure how much iron had been absorbed. Hahn wrote in a scientific paper published several years later that anywhere from 200,000 to 1,000,000 acountable countsa per minute were administered.

Darby stated in a sworn deposition taken in 1994 that the radioactive mixture was prepared in Hahnas office and brought to the clinic. He said researchers referred to the drinks as ac.o.c.ktailsa because that was the commonly used term.7 aWe just used it. I mean, this is likea"would you like to have a sweet?a Darby told reporters that he was acertaina that the women were told the c.o.c.ktails contained radioactive iron.8 But in his deposition taken several months later during a cla.s.s-action lawsuit, he said, aWe did not decide that we would not inform [the women]. We simply felt it wasa"felt it was unnecessary.aa9 aIs it your testimony, sir, that you and the planning committee didnat decide to tell the women about the radioactive iron nor did you decide not to tell them?a Don Arbitblit, an attorney representing the women in the cla.s.s-action lawsuit, asked.

aThatas right. Neither,a Darby responded.

Under questioning, Darby also stated that the radioactive iron had no therapeutic purpose and that he didnat know much about radiobiology.10 aIn fact, it was not my field,a he admitted.11 In the early stages of the experiment, Hahn conferred with Stafford Warren, who was still medical director of the Manhattan Project. Itas not known whether the two men specifically discussed the Vanderbilt experiment, but according to an entry in one of Warrenas notebooks, they discussed aisotopes.a12 Vanderbilt University was proud of the radioiron study and on December 13, 1946 issued a press release describing the experiment. Most of the radioactive iron came from the cyclotron at the Ma.s.sachusetts Inst.i.tute of Technology, the press release noted, awhile a recent supply has been received at Vanderbilt from the Oak Ridge chain reacting uranium pile.a13 Officials in Oak Ridge had become increasingly concerned about the radioactive iron manufactured in their reactor. In mid-1947 they discovered the iron-59 being distributed for medical purposes contained more iron-55 than had been expected. Iron-55 was thought to be too hazardous to be administered to humans because it had a half-life of five years. That meant that it would take five years for half of the iron-55 molecules in any given amount to decay to a nonradioactive compound, five more years for half of the remaining iron-55 to decay, and so on. By contrast, iron-59 was believed to have a half-life of forty-seven days, which meant that it would return to a stable form more quickly and subject the body to less radiation.

Oak Ridge officials were aware that any iron-59 contaminated with the longer-lived isotope was dangerous because it subjected the body to aconsiderable radiation.a And Paul Hahn, even while the Vanderbilt experiment was ongoing, was advising a Florida doctor in 1947 not to treat his patients with radioactive iron.14 aRadioactive iron regardless of the amount of activity contained is, to my knowledge, of no value whatsoever in therapy,a he wrote.15 Hahn believed that the half-lives of both iron-55 and iron-59 were afar too long.a An isotopeas halflife, wrote Hahn: must not be too long. Neither should there be an a.s.sociated component of long half-life or a long-lived contaminant whose separation is difficult or impossible to effect.16 Such long-lived materials prevent good control of the supplied radiation and also might prove ultimately to be carcinogenic in themselves. We have arbitrarily set about 10 days as the upper limit of half-life which is desirable from this point of view.

If Hahn had any similar concerns about the radioactive iron administered to the pregnant women, no correspondence has yet been made public describing those concerns. He transferred to Nashvilleas Meharry Medical College in 1948, about a year after the Vanderbilt study ended, and the women were largely forgotten. Many of the mothers and children exposed to the radioiron developed strange afflictions that were similar to those described by Helen Hutchison and her daughter. They lost their teeth and their hair. They developed bizarre rashes, bruises, strange blood disorders, anemiaa"and cancer.

Around Christmas of 1955, a young Nashville child named Carolyn Bucy developed a lump about the size of an orange on her upper thigh. Her mother, Emma Craft, a pretty woman with small, delicate features, had gone to the Vanderbilt prenatal clinic in early March of 1946 to find out if she was pregnant. Vanderbilt doctors had delivered her other three daughters, and she thought Vanderbilt was the best hospital in the world. At that time, she was married to Floyd Bucy, a carpenter and musician who made five dollars on nights playing at the Grand Ole Opry.

After examining her, the doctors at the prenatal clinic told her she was indeed pregnant with her fourth child and instructed her to return seven days later. On her second visit, she testified in a videotaped deposition taken in 1994, doctors gave her the c.o.c.ktail to drink. Her daughter, Carolyn, was then a thirteen-week-old fetus.

aWhat is it that you were told about the drink?a asked attorney Don Arbitblit.17 aIt was vitamins,a responded Emma.

aWere you told anything else about the drink?a aNo.a aDid they say anything about whether the drink was good for you or not?a aYes. They said it was good for me.a Later in the deposition, she was asked, aBefore March of 1946, had you ever heard of radiation?a aWhen they dropped the bomb was the first I knew anything about radiation.a aWhat was it that you knew about radiation?a aWell, if you can drop something like that and kill people, well you know you donat want to take it.a Carolyn was born September 15, 1946, three weeks premature. Emma breast-fed the infant and she began to put on weight quickly. Both mother and daughter were healthy when they were discharged from the hospital eight or nine days later, but Emmaas eyes soon turned swollen and black. They had to carry me back to the hospital.18 My eyes looked like somebody had beat me. They were so swollen and black. I thought, aLord, Iam going blind.a a Eventually the swelling subsided and Emmaas life returned to normal. A year after Carolyn was born, she began working in a box factory so she could better provide for her children.

Blessed with a loving disposition and her fatheras musical ear, Carolyn quickly became the center of the familyas attention. She liked doing for people,a Emma recalled. She was about nine years old when her older sisters discovered the lump on her right thigh. The child begged her sisters not to say anything about it until after the holidays. When Emma was finally shown the growth, she was deeply frightened and took her daughter to Vanderbilt Hospital the following day. The ma.s.s would have to be removed, the doctors told her. Emma got a second opinion from another physician, named Elkin Rippy. He also felt the lump should be removed and agreed to do the surgery.

During the operation, Rippy discovered Carolyn had cancer. Emma, who was in the waiting room, fainted when he told her what he had found. aWhen I came to, he told me, he said, Emma, aI got it all.a a But the cancer eventually came back. The disease spread into the childas spine, then moved up through her lungs, heart, throat, and finally, into her mouth. Emma prayed constantly and her husband went on a forty-day fast, drinking only fruit juice and water. Emma believed, aIf G.o.d can make us, then G.o.d can heal us.a Carolyn underwent radiation therapy and four more surgeries. Eventually she became paralyzed from the waist down and was forced to use a wheelchair. A catheter was connected to her bladder and she was fed intravenously. The doctors cut the cancer out of her mouth several times. aIt was black. Black cancer inside of her mouth just growing,a Emma recalled in her deposition. As the childas body withered, her face grew swollen and misshapen from the disease. She was fed intravenously, but sometimes Emma would spoon a little malt water into her mouth. Carolyn finally went into a coma and died on August 28, 1958, about two and one-half years after the cancer was discovered. She was eleven years old.

Emma slipped into a deep depression after her daughteras death. Her foreman at the box factory often told her to go for a ride when the grief threatened to overwhelm her. She would drive for hours wondering why G.o.d allowed her daughter to die such a horrible death. She often thought about killing herself by running her car into a brick wall or tree. But the knowledge that she had other daughters at home who needed her kept her from such an unthinkable act. Eventually she came to accept the loss of her daughter as G.o.das will and went on with her life.

In 1964, six years after Emmaas daughter died, a new group of researchers at Vanderbilt University decided to do a follow-up study of the women who had been given the radioactive iron c.o.c.ktails. The study began at a critical juncture in the history of the nuclear weapons program: Atmospheric testing had ended in 1963, but scientists were just beginning to make the connections between fallout and excess cancers in exposed populations.

The research community was also in an uproar over the controversial findings first reported in 1956 by Alice Stewart, a British researcher and physician.19 Stewart and her colleagues had conducted a vast survey of all children in England and Wales who died of leukemia or cancer between 1953 and 1955 before their tenth birthday. They discovered that one to two rads of radiation delivered to the fetus in utero caused a 50 percent increase in childhood cancer and leukemia.

The findings had enormous ramifications. Scientists had long known that the fetus, with its rapidly dividing cells, was extremely sensitive to radiation. But many physicians were incredulous that such small doses could have such dire consequences. Some raised questions about how Stewart collected the data, arguing that the women who got X rays were a amedically selected group,a or women who had an underlying const.i.tution or disease that predisposed their children to cancer. An independent study by Brian MacMahon of the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health confirmed Stewartas findings.20 But studies of two other groups of amedically selecteda women whose babies had been exposed in utero showed no significant relationship between cancer mortality and exposure.

Vanderbilt researchers thought the radioiron study might shed light on the controversy. The women who pa.s.sed through the clinic and were given the radioactive iron c.o.c.ktails were also a amedically unselecteda group of patients. That is, the radioactive material was administered randomly to any pregnant woman who pa.s.sed through the clinic doors regardless of her health or nutritional status.

Ruth Hagstrom, a medical doctor in her early thirties, pulled together the old records and set about collecting the epidemiological data. A scientist named A. Bertrand Brill, who had joined Vanderbilt in 1964 following a seven-year stint at the Public Health Service and had done research on the j.a.panese bombing victims, attempted to ascertain the doses given the mothers and fetuses. aRuth Hagstrom did all the sleuthing,a he said.21 aMy involvement was in the dosimetry part of it.a The follow-up study was supported by the AEC and the Public Health Service where, as it happened, Paul Hahn had taken a job after leaving Nashvilleas Meharry Medical College in 1960. At the time the Vanderbilt follow-up study began, he was chief of the research grants staff of the Public Health Serviceas Division of Radiological Health. His division actually funded the follow-up study and Hahn also helped the Vanderbilt researchers to decipher the old data. aHe helped to find the records and interpret what his notations meant and things like that,a Brill said.22 The data collection began in 1964 and took three years to complete. First the researchers had to dig out the records of the pregnant women given the radioactive iron. They found records on 751 mothers. Next they gathered records on a acontrola group of pregnant women of roughly the same age who were seen at the prenatal clinic at about the same time who did not receive the radioactive iron. Records on another 771 mothers were obtained.

Both groups of mothers were then sent detailed questionnaires. If the women did not respond, the researchers attempted to contact them and obtain the information through interviews. According to a journalist who questioned them in 1994, both Ruth Hagstrom and officials from Vanderbilt claimed the mothers were informed of their earlier exposure to radioactive iron when the follow-up study was done.23 But Helen Hutchison and Emma Craft said they were never told the true purpose of the follow-up study. aThis lady called and told me she was doing a paper on the children that were born at Vanderbilt after the war,a remembered Helen.24 aShe called and said, aIam researching the baby boomers.a a Emma Craft said the questionnaire she received dealt mostly with cancer and did not mention anything about radioactivity or the radioactive iron. aI filled it out to the best of my ability and sent it back.a25 A January 29, 1965, form letter from Hagstrom to the mothers who received the radioiron begins: aYou may remember taking part in a study of diet and eating habits while attending Vanderbilt Obstetric Clinic in the years between 1945 to 1949.a The letter goes on to say that the university is doing a follow-up project and is interested in finding out more about the health of the mothers and children.26 The mothers are asked to fill out an enclosed survey and are told the information will be kept confidential. But nowhere in the letter is there any mention of radioactive iron c.o.c.ktails given decades earlier or that the true purpose of the follow-up is to find out what harmful effects, if any, were caused by ingestion of the radioactive material.

When the vast amount of data was a.n.a.lyzed, the scientists discovered four fatal malignancies among children who had been exposed to prenatal radiation and no cancers in the nonexposed group. Childhood cancer is extremely rare, and in a 1969 paper published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, Hagstrom and her coauthors concluded that the results asuggests a cause and effect relationship.a27 The findings, they continued, represent a asmall, but statistically significant increase aand is consistent with previous radiobiologic experience.a The deceased children included: a An 11-year-old boy who contracted liver cancer. The Vanderbilt scientists said the tumor was probably unrelated to the radiation because two of his older brothers also died of liver cancer. However, attorneys representing the mothers noted the other two brothers died at ages twenty-two and twenty-six, suggesting the radioactive iron may have brought on the cancer prematurely.

a A girl, five years and eleven months old, who died of acute lymphatic leukemia. Her mother received the radioactive iron in the twenty-third week of gestation.

a A boy, age eleven, who died from lymphosarcoma. His mother received the radioactive iron in the twentieth week of pregnancy.

a A girl, age eleven, who died of synovial sarcoma of the right thigh that spread to the lungs. Her mother received the radioactive iron when she was thirteen weeksa pregnant.

The fourth child fit the description of Emma Craftas daughter. Carolyn had the same kind of cancer. It started in the same place and in the same leg. She was the same fetal age when the radioiron was administered and the same age when she died. Emma Craft would have immediately spotted the similarities between the child described in the report and her own daughtera"but she would not see the journal article for nearly twenty-five years.



Kneeling on the bare mattress springs, holding his young body in a prayerful stillness so that it wouldnat sway, wouldnat sink deeper into the coils, Gordon Shattuck dreamed of flight; the adrenaline-filled plunge down the hill behind the boyas dormitory, through the hole he had dug beneath the barbed-wire fence, across the fields, and onto the railroad tracks that led away from the red-brick inst.i.tution. The dream, if he concentrated hard enough and long enough, blotted out the throbbing pain in his knees. All of the Fernald boys, many of them grandfathers now, remember the mattress springs; their squeaky unsteadiness as they clambered on top of coils looking for a solid purchase. The punishment was meted out for the slightest infraction, a smart-alecky remark, a disrespectful shrug. If their bodies swayeda"and it was hard for them not toa"the attendants would slap the soles of the boysa bare feet with switches. A week or so often pa.s.sed before the crescent-shaped bruises faded from their knees.

Gordon came from an unstable home. His father was an alcoholic and sometimes abusive. His mother, Henrietta, had had her first child at the age of fifteen. By the time she was thirty-six, she had given birth to twenty-one children. Gordon was transferred from foster home to foster home. He kept running away and finally wound up at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Ma.s.sachusetts. The barred windows and gloomy buildings touched off an explosion of emotions within him.

Part English, part Irish, and part Native American, Gordon became one of the ringleaders at Fernald. He was small and wiry with black hair and hazel eyes. The inst.i.tution was tolerable if the boys obeyed the rules and did what they were told. But for youths like Gordon, life was hard and filled with punishing abuse that left deep grooves of rage in his mind. Especially vivid is the evening an attendant locked him in the menas room, threw open the windows to the subfreezing temperatures, and poured bucket after bucket of cold water on him until he submitted to the manas s.e.xual demands. aHe molested me, I donat know how many times,a he said.1 Able-bodied youngsters who were not mentally r.e.t.a.r.ded and had been stashed in Fernald by poverty-stricken families, or the courts, helped run the school. They worked on the farm, picking the corn, tomatoes, turnips, and peas that were canned and fed to residents the following winter. They toiled in the kitchen, repaired the buildings, mowed the gra.s.s, and delivered the mail. One boy even reportedly worked in the morgue, slicing human brains into paper-thin sections that were pressed between gla.s.s slides. It wasnat the physical hardship so much as the lugubrious tedium that got to them; like the 1950s sitcoms blaring from black-and-white TVs, the steamed food, the long afternoons in the workshop making wallets, brooms, and mattresses.

Often Gordon was ordered to polish the floors with a heavy block of carpeted wood that hung from a rope harness around his neck. aRope rubbing,a as the boys called it, was both a punishment and a ch.o.r.e. Back and forth across the wooden floors of the dormitories and hallways Gordon lugged the covered wood. Rope rubbing the floors of the upstairs rooms, Gordon could look down into an exercise yard and see the less fortunate inmates of the inst.i.tution that staff members once divided into aidiotsa (intelligence quotient less than 20), aimbecilesa (IQs of less than 50), and amoronsa (IQs over 50). They moaned to themselves and chugged in endless circles, their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them.2 Seven times Gordon had wriggled under the barbed-wire fence and run toward home, a place that in his childas mind still represented warmth and security despite its total chaos. His escapes usually lasted until dark. He was afraid of the dark, and when night came on, he turned himself in to the local police. A state car was dispatched from Fernald to bring him back to the inst.i.tution. aYouare a state boy, Gordon,a Malcolm J. Farrell, the school superintendent and physician, would tell him. an.o.body wants you. Youare gonna die here.a Still haunted by the murky dark rooms, the smells, the human suffering he witnessed, Gordon began to believe it. aIt was like a Hitler camp, I tell you,a he said.

Into this dreary march of days came the Science Club. The name alone conveyed the kind of belonging unwanted boys such as Gordon yearned for. The brainchild of scientists from the Ma.s.sachusetts Inst.i.tute of Technology, the Science Club offered Gordon and his young friends a legal way to escape from the hated inst.i.tution for a few hours. The youngsters were taken to the beach, to ball games at Fenway Park and Christmas parties at the MIT faculty club. They got Mickey Mouse watches and armbands that showed they were wanted. But these werenat the kind of boys who got something for nothing. In return for the trips and the trinkets, the boys had to eat the specially prepared oatmeal scooped into their bowls each morning. They also had to submit to X rays and blood tests and collect their urine and stool samples in special containers for the scientists. The Science Club, they would learn many years later, was never designed to a.s.suage their loneliness. It was part of a scheme concocted by MIT scientists to get the boys to partic.i.p.ate in their radiation experiments.

Like Paul Hahn and his colleagues in Tennessee, researchers in Ma.s.sachusetts had readily embraced the use of radioisotopes. Robley Evans, the founder of MITas Radioactivity Center, and one of the worldas experts on radium poisoning, was closely involved in overseeing the preparations for experiments at the school.

Between 1946 and 1953, seventy-four Fernald boys were used in experiments in which trace amounts of radioactive iron or calcium were mixed into their oatmeal.3 The function of the initial experiments was to find out whether phytatesa"chemicals found in cereals that can combine with iron and calcium to form insoluble compoundsa"were robbing the children of important minerals. The oatmeal was scooped out of square metal pans into the boysa bowls. Then the milk, foamy and cold, was poured over the cereal. Sometimes the radioactive isotopes were mixed into the cereal and sometimes they were mixed into the milk. The scientists had impressed upon the attendants how important it was that the boys clean their bowls. aYou had to drink the milk. That was the thing,a Gordon remembered. There was nothing unique about the MIT study at Fernald. Indeed, the school had been a veritable laboratory for medical researchers from nearby Boston for many years.

Founded in 1848 by Samuel Gridley Howe, Fernald was the first permanent school for the afeeble-mindeda in North America.4 Howe was a social reformer who named one of his children after his good friend Florence Nightingale, and was guided through the prisons and inst.i.tutions of England by none other than Charles d.i.c.kens.5 His wife was Julia Gridley Howe, a famous suffragette and outspoken opponent of slavery.6 Edward W. Emerson, the physician son of Ralph Waldo Emerson, at one time was a member of the schoolas board of trustees.7 Howe believed that r.e.t.a.r.ded children could be rehabilitated through education, fresh air, and work. But as the decades pa.s.sed and the political climate changed, the inst.i.tution evolved into a very different kind of school from the gentle learning environment Howe had envisioned. Civil servants replaced the high-minded reformers. The long periods of prayer and cla.s.sroom lessons shrank to a few desultory hours per day. The goal was no longer to help the mentally r.e.t.a.r.ded but to protect society from them. Walter E. Fernald, a respected figure in psychiatry and superintendent for whom the school eventually was renamed, ill.u.s.trated the harsh sentiments of the era in a speech: The social and economic burdens of uncomplicated feeble- mindedness are only too well known.8 The feeble-minded are a parasitic, predatory cla.s.s, never capable of self-support or of managing their own affairs. The great majority ultimately become public charges in some form. They cause unutterable sorrow at home and are a menace and danger to the community. Feeble-minded women are almost invariably immoral and if at large usually become carriers of venereal disease or give birth to children who are as defective as themselves.a Every feebleminded person, especially the high-grade imbecile, is a potential criminal, needing only the proper environment and opportunity for the development and expression of his criminal tendencies.a In addition to the mentally handicapped, Fernald also became a dumping ground for troublesome children and adults deemed unacceptable by society or the Ma.s.sachusetts courts. Prost.i.tutes and alcoholics, adeviants and defects,a children from large immigrant families, and even youngsters found by the judiciary to be too stubborn were shipped to Fernald.9 In the early twentieth century, as scientific research into the causes and treatment of amental diseasesa began to expand, doctors and scientists from the ivy-covered schools in Boston began to take an interest in the disabled residents living in the inst.i.tution twenty to twenty-five miles away. Here was an ideal populationa"a captive populationa"that could be studied in detail. Here were humans suffering from such rare physical deformities and diseases that they were regularly paraded before photographers who snapped their pictures for medical textbooks. The diversity and range of ailments was so great that researchers began referring to the brick inst.i.tution as the azoo.a A laboratory was set up in one of the buildings.10 Downstairs was the morgue where autopsies were performed and human organs stored in jars of formaldehyde. Two air-conditioning repairmen inadvertently discovered several aartifactsa from that era on a summer day in June 1986 in a storage room at what is now called the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center on the grounds of the Fernald campus.11 In the unused storage room, the repairmen found two enamel cooking pots eleven inches wide and nine inches high. On the lid of one of the crocks, which was caked with dust and aold brown spatters,a the word aPedroa was written in orange grease paint. Inside was a decapitated human head in formalin solution. The head was covered with gray and brown scalp hair about one inch long. All the upper teeth were missing and a stubbly beard covered the face. The other crock, labeled as.e.xto,a also contained a human head.

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According to doc.u.ments and news reports, the heads were from prisoners decapitated by General Francisco Franco in Spain and had been brought into the United States in the 1950s by Harvard neurosurgeon Hannibal Hamlin, who was researching a new treatment for Parkinsonas disease. Hamlin subsequently turned the heads over to Paul Yakovlev, one of Fernaldas former researchers. Yakovlev had acquired a collection of 1,000 brains, which eventually was given to the Armed Forces Inst.i.tute of Pathology. He and his successors had tried on numerous occasions to give the heads away to a medical inst.i.tution but were unsuccessful. Eventually the heads were put in storage and forgotten.

aHe was a wonderful doctor, a great radiologist,a recalled retired Army Major General Charles Gingles.14 aI called him every St. Patrickas Day to wish him happy birthday.a c.o.o.ney kept his pockets filled with change, which he doled out liberally to small children, and often showed up at parties with a puppet. aFriends remember him for singing those wonderful songs and having the jumping jack [puppet] on his knee. He could manipulate it and make it tap dance,a Gingles recalled. aHe always brought it to every party. And he had it colored, you see. A black man.a During Operation Sandstone, fallout was heavy, but the tests were completed safely due largely to good luck and good weather. The most serious accident involved four men who suffered severe beta burns to their hands while trying to remove filter paper from the unmanned drone planes that had flown through the mushroom clouds. Huge blisters appeared and over the next decade several of the men had to undergo skin grafts and plastic surgery.15 Like Stafford Warren, James c.o.o.ney also went on the lecture circuit when he returned home from the Pacific. Instead of warning of the dangers of radiation, c.o.o.ney took the opposite position, arguing that there was no reason for the public to be so afraid of atomic bombs. He also began calling for psychological training for the troops in future atomic tests.16 The idea had come to him during Crossroads when he spotted two soldiers with rosary beads around their necks. aAn Irishman is no good when you frighten him to that extent,a he said several years later.17 Before a Boston audience, c.o.o.ney noted: I have observed the reactions of the military, who were not acquainted with the technical details, on two missions, Bikini and [Enewetak], and the fear reaction of the uninitiated is appalling.18 The fear reaction of the uninitiated civilian is ever evident. It is of such magnitude that it could well interfere with an important military mission in time of war.a If we are to live with this piece of ordnance and ever have to use it again in the defense of our way of living, we must acquire a practical att.i.tude, not only toward its efficiency or limitations as a bomb, but also toward the possible effects and limitations of this amysteriousa radiation.

Following the 1948 Sandstone tests, military and civilian officials began looking for a place closer to home where they could explode nuclear weapons. The cost of mounting the huge operations at the Pacific Proving Ground was prohibitive, and weapons scientists wanted to speed up the development of the hydrogen bomb. Concerned that the Korean War might interfere with testing, the Pentagon was also worried that the Soviets might try to kidnap U.S. nuclear scientists or sabotage the tests in the Pacific.19 The Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, in a 1948 top-secret study called aNutmeg,a20 narrowed the possible continental test sites to five locations: the White Sands Guided Missile Range in Alamagordo, New Mexico, which included the Trinity site; Dugway Proving Ground at the Wendover Bombing Range in Utah; the Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range near Las Vegas, Nevada; another area in Nevada extending from Fallon to Eureka; and the Pamlico Sounda"Camp Lejeune area in North Carolina.

Although the Nutmeg study did not specifically recommend any one site, a portion of the Las Vegas gunnery range came closest to fulfilling the criteria set out by the weaponeers. The land was already controlled by the government and would not require any tedious acquisition process; the site had a relatively low population density and favorable weather conditions; and most important, it was reasonably close to Los Alamos.

The future continental test site lay in a transitional zone between the Mojave and the Great Basin deserts and had been written off by many officials as useless real estate. aA good place to throw used razor blades,a Gordon Dean, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1950 to 1953, once observed.21 In truth, the region was a thriving ecosystem that was home to many species of mammals, reptiles, birds, and waterfowl.22 Gray-headed juncos, buffleheads, and great yellowlegs swooped through the blue vastness. Tortoises, lizards, and snakes made their homes in the shade of sagebrush and four-winged saltbush. Mule deer, coyotes, bobcat, wild horses, mountain lions, and bighorn sheep roamed the higher elevations.

The plans for a continental test site were put on a back burner after the Nutmeg study was completed. Sumner Pike, one of the AEC commissioners, remarked in 1949 that atomic tests could be justified on the North American continent only in the event of a national emergency.23 The Korean War provided just such an emergency.

On August 1, 1950, some five weeks after the outbreak of hostilities in Korea, some of the elder statesmen of the Manhattan Project and the boosters of the burgeoning nuclear weapons program gathered in Los Alamos to discuss the aradiological hazardsa a.s.sociated with such a test site.24 Among those present were Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, Joseph Kennedy, and Wright Langham.

Shields Warren did not attend the meeting, nor did any of his representatives from AEC headquarters. Warrenas absence was conspicuous given the enormity of the pending event and the fact that the AECas Division of Biology and Medicine was charged with overseeing the health and safety of the nuclear weapons program. Warrenas exclusion probably was deliberate; he had not yet come around to the idea that atomic bombs could be detonated with impunity within the continental United States and may have argued against such a program. But shortly before his death, in an interview with Stewart Udall, who was representing people who lived downwind of the test site in a cla.s.s-action lawsuit, Warren refused to concede that his absence was a aserious oversighta by those who convened the meeting.25 Chairing the meeting was Alvin Graves, the scientist who was peering over the shoulder of daredevil physicist Louis Slotin when the screwdriver slipped. Graves, who combed his longish, unkempt hair over a bald spot caused by the radiation exposure, instructed the partic.i.p.ants to restrict their comments to the radiological hazards aomitting insofar as possible the psychological and political implications.a26 Then he turned the meeting over to the Army officer who had found his ident.i.ty in the postwar confusion of the Manhattan Project and whose career had flowered in the deepening Cold War: General James c.o.o.ney.

Breezy and confident as ever, c.o.o.ney a.s.sured the group that atomic bombs could be safely detonated in Nevada, pointing out that the medical profession agenerally accepteda the position that an individual, no matter what his or her physical condition, would suffer no harm if exposed to twenty-five roentgens.27 c.o.o.ney said he felt certain Warren and others in the radiobiology field would accept this figure, but years later Warren said the general was aquite wronga in his opinion.28 Nevertheless, records show that c.o.o.neyas twenty-five roentgen figure was adopted by Los Alamos and the AEC as the upper-level dose that civilians could receive in an emergency.

c.o.o.ney was also confident the tests would not result in any serious internal contamination. aOne would have to ingest a kilogram of the material immediately under the shot tower in order to ingest enough plutonium to cause physical damage,a he is quoted as saying in notes taken at the meeting.29 To b.u.t.tress his argument, after the meeting c.o.o.ney asked University of Rochester professor William Bale to prepare a memorandum on the radiation dose a person in the path of fallout might theoretically receive. Bale, an old-timer from the University of Rochester, had obtained one of the first biophysics degrees in the country under Stafford Warrenas tutelage and had supervised the metabolic ward where Samuel Ba.s.sett had conducted the Rochester plutonium injections. When he later worked as an AEC consultant in the early 1950s, Bale discovered radon levels in a mine in Marysvale, Utah, that were more than 4,000 times greater than the exposure allowed for radium dial painters. But he applauded Public Health Service officials for not aunduly alarming miners as to hidden hazards that may exist, or in any way impeding mining operations.a30 In the memo he prepared for c.o.o.ney, Bale inexplicably limited his discussion of radioactive dangers to beta particles, even though he and the other scientists knew that atomic bomb detonations also released gamma rays and alpha particles. At Rochesteras Manhattan Annex, Baleas colleagues had investigated the potential biological damage caused by both alpha and beta particles. Mild exposure to beta particles can cause erythema, a reddening of the skin that resembles sunburn. Severe or prolonged exposure can cause dryness of the skin, wartlike growths, chronic ulcerations, and skin cancer. aIt should be emphasized,a31 wrote Simeon Cantril, one of the Manhattan Project scientists, athat beta particles of the average energy a.s.sociated with the long-lived fission products will penetrate well below the skin, and hence there is real potentiality for injury if due caution is not exercised to avoid overexposure.a Bale further limited his discussion by confining it to only three possible scenarios: He a.n.a.lyzed the potential exposures people living downwind from an explosion might receive from beta particles if the fallout was uniform, if the fallout was uneven, or if residents were in their homes when the radioactive cloud pa.s.sed overhead. (For some reason he had concluded that most human exposures in contaminated areas would occur when the residents were inside their homes or when the fallout was uniformly distributed. Curiously, he did not explain why he believed the fallout would be uniform. Scientists knew dating back to the Trinity test that fallout did not come down uniformly and that areas of intense radioactivity, called hot spots, could develop.) aEven the lightest type of house construction gives close to perfect protection from beta rays,a Bale wrote optimistically.32 aThe soles of shoes are thick enough that substantial to complete protection to beta rays is given the bottoms of the feet when walking on contaminated ground.a The scientists attending the August conference concluded that a twenty-five-kiloton bomb dropped from a tower would expose residents in a hundred-mile radius to no more than six to twelve roentgens. They did concede, however, that some apeople will receive perhaps a little more radiation than medical authorities say is absolutely safe.a33 Enrico Fermi wanted the report to stress the aextreme uncertaintya upon which the conclusions were based.34 Apologizing for bringing up apsychological implications,a Fermi added that ahis impression was that if conditions are such that 10 r will be received, people should be warned to stay indoors, take showers, etc.a His suggestions were not followed.

With little fanfare and no input from the public, the Nevada site was approved for bomb tests by President Truman in December of 1950. Before the first weapons were detonated in January of 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission embarked upon a highly sophisticated public relations campaigna"approved by the National Security Councila"to gain public acceptance for the tests. The whole thrust of the PR program, according to one memo, was ato make the atom routine in the continental United States and make the public feel at home with atomic blasts and radiation hazards.a35 It appeared that the idea of making the public feel at home with neutrons trotting around is the most important angle to get across.a The weaponeers originally envisioned the Nevada Test Site, as it later became known, as a place where they could conduct quick experiments with relatively small atomic bombs. The information obtained from the Nevada tests would then be applied to the development of bigger atomic bombs and thermonuclear weapons that would be exploded in the Pacific. But the atmospheric tests and the corresponding military maneuvers became routine events and continued for more than a decade. Whatas more, a number of the bombs exploded in Nevada were significantly larger than what the Graves Committee had antic.i.p.ated.

Two series of atmospheric tests were conducted in Nevada in 1951. Subsequently, one atmospheric test series per year was conducted in Nevada in 1952, 1953, 1955, 1957, 1958, and 1962. Atmospheric tests were conducted in the Pacific in 1946, 1948, 1951, 1952, 1954, 1956, 1958, and 1962. In addition, a thirty-kiloton bomb was exploded underwater off the coast of San Diego, California, in 1955 during Operation Wigwam, and three bombs, ranging from one to two kilotons, were detonated on rockets hundreds of miles above the South Atlantic Ocean in 1958 during Operation Argus.36 Some 35 other nuclear devices were detonated at and near the test site, as well as in Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, and Mississippi as part of the Plowshare Program, a project aimed at investigating the peaceful uses of nuclear explosives.

It turned out that William Bale was wrong even in the very limited risk a.n.a.lysis he provided. Hundreds of downwind residents suffered from both external and internal beta burns caused by fallout during the testing period. AEC investigators later attributed the complaints to asunburns,a agastro-intestinal disturbance,a ahysteria,a and ahypothyroidism.a37 For Shields Warren and his biomedical colleagues at AEC headquarters, the continental testing program posed a whole new set of problems. Although Warren argued strenuously against some of the military maneuvers, particularly the plan to put troops closer to Ground Zero, he ultimately could shrug those off as the Pentagonas responsibility. Fallout was another matter. Eventually the radioactive debris circled the globe, creating an international furor by the mid-1950s. Incapable of engaging in an honest debate and unwilling to level with the American public, the AEC retreated behind its walls of secrecy, sowing a legacy of distrust that still exists toward its modern day successor, the Department of Energy. Many residents who lived downwind of the bomb tests contend they were used as laboratory animals by their government. Likewise, thousands of atomic veterans allege they were used as unwitting guinea pigs by the military.

Doc.u.ments that were not decla.s.sified until the mid-1990s reveal that in 1951, the year the bombs began raining down on Nevada, Shields Warren had grave concerns about the health risks from fallout. But by the time the fallout controversy was in full bloom, he had become firmly committed to the idea that whatever the risks, the tests were necessary to keep the United States safe from the Soviet Union and a world dominated by communism.



Huddled in the cold night air, with galaxies of stars wheeling above them, Jerry Schultz and his two friends listened for the sound of approaching aircraft.1 The three enlisted men had left their wooden shack and taken refuge in a small hollow in the desert when the man on the red phone told him the aircraft would be arriving at 0547. The red phone was a direct link to the Atomic Energy Commission offices in Las Vegas. The AEC official had warned Schultz that the atomic bomb the aircraft was lugging toward them would be the biggest ever dropped from a plane. Be sure to protect yourselves, he had warned. aHow do we do that?a Schultz asked. There was a long pause and then the voice said, aFrankly, we donat know.a Jerry Schultz, Jack Richards, and Lewis Woods had been a.s.signed to gather weather data during Operation Ranger, the first atomic bomb tests ever held in Nevada. They were just kids, between nineteen and twenty-one years old, who had been handpicked by their commanding officer at Edwards Air Force Base and told to pack their bags for a top-secret a.s.signment. The next day a plane picked them up and brought them to Indian Springs Air Force Base in Nevada. They worked in a wooden building about six and one-half miles from Ground Zero.

In the last days of January and the first days of February of 1951, the three young men witnessed the fiery glory of Rangeras first four detonations. With yields ranging from one to eight kilotons, the bombs were firecrackers compared to the weapon an aircraft was hauling toward them at that very moment. This fifth and final bomb, code-named Shot Fox, would have a yield of twenty-two kilotons, one kiloton bigger than the bomb that devastated Nagasaki. Although Schultzas recollection differs in some details from the official account of the shot, the following is what he remembers: At 0540 the three men spotted a blinking light coming in from the east. All commercial airliners within a hundred-mile radius had been banned from the air s.p.a.ce. They were certain this was their bomber. Schultz harbored the irrational hope that the aircraft was making a dry run, but the sudden high-pitched whine of the engines and the planeas bank to the right told him the bomber had dropped its payload. The men had no radiation badges, no Geiger counters. Schultz made a quick act of contrition and then looked at the fading stars, the burst of gold along the eastern horizon, and the scared eyes of his two young companions. It was February 6, 1951.

The bomb split open the soft cantaloupe of darkness with a searing light and an unearthly roar that was capable of rupturing human eardrums within six-tenths of a mile of Ground Zero. aThe entire landscape around us was lit up in an eerie unrealistic light from horizon to horizon as far as the eye could see. The light was so intense that THERE WERE NO SHADOWS,a Schultz later wrote.

He dropped to one knee. As he did so, the first shock wave struck him. It felt like a hundred-pound bag of sand hitting him in the chest. He staggered backward and his fur cap was blown from his head. His buddy, Jack Richards, began running back toward the wooden shack. The shock wave from the blast slammed Richards into the door, shoving his hand through one of the windows.

The black floor of the desert pitched and rolled. Two lightning bolts appeared in the rising mushroom

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