Tons of studies and experiments had to be conducted before the human race could come up with the knowledge that we have today. For instance, imagine the scientists studying all the different kinds of mushrooms to find out that one tastes like meat, the other makes you high, and another one could take out a bull in a few seconds. The growing pains of discovery included many test subjects that would often include animals and, other times, humans. Just like when the US was in the process of understanding radioactive materials a decade after plutonium had been discovered. The government had insufficient knowledge yet on how to handle such toxic materials properly. This led them to conduct experiments on humans by injecting them with plutonium without their knowledge to study its side effects.

The Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project was a major research and development program of the US government during World War II. It officially began in 1942, although the agencies that led to the program were first formed in 1939 after Albert Einstein wrote a letter reporting that the Nazi scientists were already in the process of working on a nuclear weapon at that time, urging them to do the same. Only then did the United States take the atomic weapons business seriously.

The most famous development of the Manhattan Project was when they produced atomic bombs, two of which were the Little Boy Bomb and the Fat Man Bomb, that were dropped on the two cities of Japan, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. There was also this not-so-famous bomb that was supposed to be the third bomb to be dropped in Japan had they not surrendered, known as the Demon Core (know why it was called as such here.)

Although a huge chunk of the Manhattan Project was dedicated to the development and production of the weapons, a small portion of it was dedicated to studying the health effects of the radioactive materials involved in the project, which was Plutonium.

Human Experiments

The adverse effects that radiation could do on the human body were not unknown even before the Manhattan Project. However, policies and safety precautions were not standardized, nor were they careful. That’s why it was no surprise that there had been a few incidents that included some researchers’ being killed by mishandling nuclear materials.  I mean, what would you expect when a physicist disregarded safety protocols and opted to use his trusty flathead screwdriver to keep the space between two neutron reflecting half-spheres like what physicist Louis Slotin did instead of using metal spacers.

Apart from that, the huge amounts of radioactive materials used in the experiments also led to widespread contamination even outside of the research facilities. They wanted to know exactly the risks and dangers that these researchers were facing, so they began studying the effects of radiation on human bodies.

A security poster used in the secret US Manhattan Project during World War 2. (Unknown: There is a signature in the bottom left of the image that may be “Don L,” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The plutonium toxicity studies began with rats as the main subject. These were quickly deemed inconclusive, so they decided to move the experiments onto human trials beginning in 1945. They didn’t realize at the time that rats are pretty resistant to radiation. At that time, details about plutonium were not yet disclosed to the public, so they decided that for the secrecy of it, they would not inform anyone outside of scientific circles about the trials, not even the human test subjects.

A total of eighteen human subjects were selected and injected with plutonium without their knowledge from 1945 until 1947, their ages ranging from 4 to 69. One common thing about them was their diagnosis of a terminal illness.

Patient CAL-1

One of the involuntary subjects of the human radiation experiment was a house painter from Ohio in his late 50s named Albert Stevens, or patient CAL-1. At that time, he had checked into the University of California Hospital in San Francisco and was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was suggested that a gastroscopy be performed to make sure that the diagnosis was accurate, but it never really happened. And so Stevens was chosen for the study because, according to acting chief of radiology Earl Miller, “he was doomed” to die.

Photograph of California resident Albert Stevens, who survived the highest known accumulated radiation dose in any human after being unknowingly injected with plutonium. (Albert Stevens Wikipedia)

Before he underwent the operation that would try to rid him of cancer, Stevens was injected with what would be known as the highest accumulated radiation dose in any human, 131 kBq (3.55 µCi) of plutonium. After that, stool and urine samples were taken from Stevens for analysis. He then underwent an operation to remove his cancer, which included taking out parts of his liver, entire spleen, lymph nodes, part of his pancreas, part of his omentum, and most of his ninth rib.

When some of the materials removed from Stevens were analyzed, they discovered that Stevens was misdiagnosed and did not have cancer in the first place. He was, in fact, suffering from a large gastric ulcer. He and his family were not informed about it and were instead told that his recovery was speedy. They kept on taking samples from him for under a year to check and study the radiation levels in his body. Plutonium remained present in his body for the rest of his life until he died some 20 years later, in 1966, at the age of 79, from heart disease. His cremated remains were collected by the Department of Energy for analysis but were never returned to his family. At that time, his body’s accumulated radiation dose was 64 Sievert Sv). To give you an idea of how high that was, the current annual permitted dose for a radiation worker in the US is .05 Sv.

Joseph Hamilton with radio sodium experiment in Berkeley, California, January 1939. (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Stevens became known as the most radioactive human ever, although none of the 18 test subjects died due to the experiments. It was in 1950 that Dr. Joseph Hamilton released a memo against human experiments, saying that the Atomic Energy Commission should steer away from such studies to avoid criticism and that they were “a little of the Buchenwald touch,” referring to one of the biggest of the Nazi concentration camps in Germany.