As the carnage of the 20th century begins to fade from memory and crystallize into written history, it is instructive to note which events get forgotten. For example, you probably haven’t heard a lot about the United States government’s radiation experiments on live, uninformed, human subjects who were usually poor African-Americans.
I know it sounds crazy but government use of human guinea pigs in the age of the atom is not only true, it is really well documented in declassified files, newspaper articles, court proceedings, and at least two books. But if you’re like me, you probably haven’t heard much or anything at all about this.
Most of us know something about the infamous goings-on at Tuskegee, where syphilis patients were allowed to die slow deaths so doctors might watch. This study/massacre used impoverished black men who had contracted syphilis, giving them a placebo instead of real medicine. But the human radiation experiments conducted from the late 1940s into the early ’70s were in many ways even worse. The most truly awful among them were the experiments that Dr. Eugene L. Saenger ran at Cincinnati General Hospital from 1960 to 1972. He was paid by the Department of Defense and his findings were used by several government agencies.
What makes radiation experiments like Saenger’s more horrible than those at Tuskegee is that, in these cases, doctors were not merely watching an already existing disease take its course. Instead Saenger deliberately injected hundreds of people with potentially lethal doses of radiation, knowing that most of them would die rather quick deaths. At least 89 people are acknowledged to have died as a direct result of Saenger’s treatment, although the number is likely well above 200. Dr. Saenger even copped to the crime and openly defended his actions as necessary preparation for nuclear war. When the story of his crimes came to light in the 1970s he was never punished and continues to practice medicine at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Dr. Saenger did not return phone calls requesting an interview.
Road Trip to the End of Moral Universe
I found out about this demented “research” quite by mistake. After graduating college I bummed a ride cross-country with a group of Green Party activists on their way to Denver to nominate Ralph Nader for President. The road trip was cast as a Freedom Ride, but the only “free” thing I cared about was the ride. Driving wast from D.C. in a caravan of wacky-looking, painted vans, we stopped at numerous sites of injustice: incinerators, prisons, and lavish publicly-funded private baseball stadiums, et al. At these spots we met with local activists and Green party candidates. It would have been a great education had I listened more and smoked less pot.
It wasn’t until Cincinnati that I began to pay attention. We pulled into a deserted parking lot behind the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. I climbed out of the Democracy Odyssey—our 20-year old van plastered with radical quotes and a “Go Granny Go” flyer—and along with “Freedom Riders” from the other vans we grouped in front of a dumpster to hear a quick speech. There was a an African-American man named Gwendon Plair explaining how a doctor had injected his mother with radiation.
How could this be possible?
“It’s a great tragedy to lose a loved one. That tragedy is made all the worse when that loved one is taken purposely by one’s own government.” The speaker then told his mother’s story, as he must have done hundreds of times: She was poisoned and died a horrible death. We were joined in the crowd by the judge who handled the case, several of the victim’s relatives, and an activist who helped bring the story to light. Then it was time to see the commemorative plaque.
“What I want you to notice first,” he said, “is where this memorial is located, and what language is used. Now let’s go.”
We followed him behind the dumpster and up a short set of cracked concrete steps to the top of a hump, then down an ancient macadam path cracked and broken by weeds. Then around the corner of what appeared to be the hospital’s kitchen. There, between the hospital’s backside and its looming parking garage, beneath a shaggy maple tree, was a small plaque set a foot and a half off the ground. It read: “Dedicated to the Patients of the Radiation Experimentation, 1973 – 1974.” Below, in tiny print, were the names of over 170 “patients” whose involvement in the “Radiation Experimentation” would prove to be their last act on earth.
In the Name of the Cold War
Despite the one-year time span given on the plaque, the Defense Department’s Cincinnati experiments actually lasted from 1960 – 1972. By 1971, due to heavy political pressure, the experiment began to go sour; then the Washington Post picked up the story. Around that time there was some attention from other mainstream press outlets, and so the experiments were stopped and things quickly quieted down.
The number of Americans murdered by Dr. Saenger’s research remains in dispute because much of the evidence that could have been used to implicate the hospital and the DOD was destroyed. But this much we know: the hospital was paid over $850,000 and the data gained was shared with numerous agencies. The exact purpose of the research, according to Dr. Saenger, was “to understand and mitigate the possible effects of Nuclear Warfare upon human beings,” specifically soldiers on a battlefield. His unwitting subjects were mostly cancer patients coming to the hospital for treatment. In most cases the victims were in the early stages of their disease and in “relatively good health,” according to a hospital report. Other experiments across the country used pregnant women, severely learning disabled students, workers, soldiers, and prison inmates.
Throughout most of the study, consent forms were not signed. Later, when consent forms were used, many victims claimed they had been duped or had their signatures forged. According to a report by a University of Cincinnati Faculty Committee sent to the Pentagon, “physicians, nurses, technicians, and ward personnel were instructed not to discuss post-irradiation symptoms or reactions with the patients” which included “the risk of death from bone marrow failure within 40 days.”
The “treatment” received by UC “patients” is hardly an anomaly. Radiation research was systematic and widespread; the implications well discussed and understood. In fact the national security archives now has reams of declassified documents on various human radiation experiments often conducted on unwitting subjects by numerous government departments.
Nor were the doctors involved unclear as to what they were doing. In the 1950s, Shields Warren, then director of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of Biology and Medicine, received a memo from Joseph Hamilton—the scientist in charge of radiation experiments at the University of California—advising that large primates be used instead of humans in the upcoming studies on radiation’s cognitive effects, of which Dr. Saenger’s study was one. The memo explained that the use of humans could leave the AEC open “to considerable criticism,” as the experiments had “a little of the Buchenwald touch.” Disregarding this advice, the experiments continued as planned, coast-to-coast, with varying degrees of deadliness. In the early 1980s Dr. David Egilman and Geoffrey Sea—health consultants for the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union and the Federal Atomic Traders and Labor Council—investigated experiments conducted on nuclear workers and uncovered more crimes committed by the University of Cincinnati hospital. This time it was “body snatching.”
Turns out that the AEC and Department of Energy (DOE) had secretly contracted with various Cincinnati hospitals and coroners for the collection of tissue, organs, and, in some cases, whole cadavers of people who had been killed by radiation. The list of these bizarre and usually racist experiments is actually chronicled in Eileen Welsome’s little-read but well documented book called The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War published in 1999.
A Thimble’s Dram of Justice?
If there is any justice in this story it comes in small portions. Perhaps Gwendon Plair, the son of a radiation victim, obtained justice. Refusing the government’s offer of settlement, he led 12 stubborn families in their fight for not just a cash award, but an apology from the President and a memorial erected by the hospital. In the late ’90s they finally won, and in June of 2000 the University of Cincinnati Medical Center dropped a small, ambiguously worded plaque somewhere behind a dumpster, along a cracked macadam path, underneath a drooping maple, between the kitchen and the parking garage.
RYAN GRIM is the senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post. He is the author of This Is Your Country on Drugs (Wiley, 2009).