Books (well, one book)

THE PLUTONIUM FILES: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War by Eileen Welsome is a grimly detailed reminder that movie mad scientists aren’t as implausible as some SF critics insist. Welsome recounts American scientists’ and doctors’ efforts to understand the effects of radioactive material by such varied methods as injecting terminally ill patients with plutonium, sprinkling radioactive material on orphans’ breakfast cereal and recruiting everyone from convicts to pregnant women as guinea pigs for radiation experiments without telling them what they were actually facing (not to mention forcing soldiers closer and closer to ground zero at test sites to determine the effects). While the broad outline wasn’t news to me (I remember when this story broke back in the early 1990s), the explicit details are quite bloodcurdling as Cold War security needs, pressure, classism (a lot of it reminds me of the eugenicists in Better For All the World in the underlying disdain for the poor) and ambition (“If they said no, you didn’t get to do your project, so it was easier not to tell them.”) combined to drive doctors to violate both AMA principles and AEC guidelines (Welsome guts the “Standards were different then” by showing that the AMA required informed consent as early as 1946, though one doctor is probably right that nobody took this seriously). The closest thing to a hero is Clinton-era Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, who ripped the lid off a lot of this, though subsequent attempts to provide financial redress or a serious government investigation foundered (“The commission’s report asserted there had been wrongdoing but refused to blame any individual involved in the experiments.”). Probably the scariest book I’ll read this year.


Filed under Politics, Reading

5 responses to “Books (well, one book)

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