Rochester, Radiation, and Repression

A. S. Zaidi


I feel a sense of closure," said Energy
Secretary Hazel O’Leary as she announced a
recent settlement awarding $4.8 million to the
families of 12 patients injected with radioactive
substances in experiments sponsored by the U. S.
Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The legal
agreement absolves the federal government of
blame. In the October 24, 1996 Times-Union,
Gerald Mousso, whose uncle was injected with
plutonium at the University of Rochester (UR) in
1946, comments: "I guess the government
really won. All the culprits that planned and
executed this thing got away with it."

Altogether, about 16,000 people were subjects
in radiation experiments that Congressman Edward
Markey of Massachusetts calls "a gruesome
testament to the nuclear naivete and
paranoia" of the Cold War. Eleven of the
eighteen plutonium injection experiments on human
subjects in the 1940s were done at UR. Among
other things, the experiments led to the
momentous discovery that humans excrete plutonium
more slowly than rats. In other UR experiments
during that decade, six patients had uranium
salts injected into their kidneys to determine
how it would affect their renal function; and
five other patients were injected with polonium,
another radioactive substance, to see how it was
metabolized and excreted.

In one of her Pulitzer Prize-winning articles
on the plutonium experiments, Eileen Welsome
explains: "Plutonium emits from its nucleus
an extremely high-energy alpha particle, which is
composed of two protons and two neutrons… The
energy is called ionizing radiation, a process in
which negatively charged electrons are separated
from their neutral atoms… Once an electron is
knocked out of orbit, it careens great distances,
breaking the intricate latticework of chemical
bonds in the body and producing new chemical
reactions, especially in cell nuclei… The first
alpha particle or the hundred-millionth could be
the one that causes the crucial mutation that
leads to cancer. Thus any amount of plutonium,
however small, can potentially cause cancer…
Cell culture experiments suggest that exposure to
alpha particles can lead to chromosomal
instability that could affect future

Most of the plutonium in human bodies comes,
of course, not from university experiments but
from deliberate releases of the substance into
the air. Atmospheric atom bomb tests ended in
1962. However, thousands of pounds of plutonium
radionuclides had been released by then. John
Gofman, an expert on the dangers of radiation,
estimates that close to a million lung-cancer
deaths will result from plutonium fallout, and
that the resultant disruption of genes and
chromosomes will cause such diseases as heart
disease and schizophrenia.

As for the plutonium medical experiments, the
UR administration denies responsibility for them
because they were, in the words of UR Medical
Center spokesperson Robert Loeb,
"government-created and
government-funded." This attribution of sole
responsibility to the government ignores the
"circulation of elite’s" between
government, corporations, and universities,
particularly at UR which was built in the shadow
of Kodak and the national security state. Loeb
claims that UR neither knew of nor approved the
plutonium experiments, which he describes as a
"covert extracurricular activity." This
notion, that UR doctors acted without the
approval of administrators, contradicts what is
known about the experiments.

As William Neumann, a former UR Radiation
Biology Department chair, recalls in a 1975 UR
Medical Center publication titled To Each His
Farthest Star,
the AEC experiments came to UR
in 1943 when Dr. Albert K. Chapman, the vice
president of Eastman Kodak, introduced Dr.
Stafford Warren, the UR chief of radiology who
later devised the single plutonium injection
experiments, to high-ranking military officers in
the Manhattan District, the program later known
as the Manhattan Project. The officers questioned
Dr. Warren on his experience with radiation,
after which "…Dr. Chapman left, after
advising Dr. Warren to do whatever the officers
requested. Then, according to Dr. Warren’s
account, the officers took him to a private room
where after locking the door, closing the
transom, and examining a closet, they asked him
if he would consider working on a medical program
of great importance to the government but which
involved the utmost secrecy. Following
consultation with [UR] President Valentine and
Dean Whipple on March 2, 1943, Dr. Warren
accepted an appointment as civilian consultant to
the Manhattan District."

UR officials maintain that because the
radiation experiments were conducted long ago,
they are not representative of research at UR. In
an interview, former UR President Robert Sproull
relegated the experiments to a past where
unpleasantness just tended to happen:
"Things were done then during the war that
would not be done at all now. You don’t use
the word ‘nigger’ now at all. But if
you uncovered something 50 years old and somebody
used the word ‘nigger,’ it would sound
as if he was a terrible person. So it was done in
a different society, a different world,

Despite Sproull’s assurances about the
difference between then and now, UR has always
valued profitable research over human well-being.
According to the Occupational Safety and
Health Reporter
, "In 1967, researchers
at the University of Rochester examined the
uptake and retention of lead in red blood cells
of three subjects who were fed lead, and compared
excretion rates of lead between subjects who were
given lead by mouth and those given it
intravenously." Last spring, UR sophomore
Nicole Wan died in a university medical
experiment, despite warnings from the Food and
Drug Administration, just months prior to
Wan’s death, that UR’s failure to
follow proper experiment procedures placed human
subjects at risk. Around the same time, UR’s
involvement in the Westfall Health Facility,
where a comatose woman was raped and impregnated,
became public knowledge. Lately, controversy has
erupted at UR over the presence of Dr. Ron Wood,
a researcher whose experiments involve feeding
crack to monkeys. Wood left NYU a few years ago,
after the U.S. Department of Agriculture fined
the university for 378 violations of the Animal
Welfare Act which took place at Wood’s

These scandals accompany UR’s move toward
profitable research and corporatized medicine.
Just a few years ago, President Clinton touted
Rochester as a model for national health
insurance. Today, this model is a fading memory.
Powerful corporate interests are corrupting
medicine and education at UR and elsewhere in

In his 1991 speech at UR announcing the
shifting of Pentagon money from federal
laboratories to universities, Allen Bromley,
science advisor to George Bush, warned of the
dangers that would befall "a nation that
draws too sharp a distinction between its
scholars and its warriors." The distinction
is lost on UR’s corporate trustees who can
not even distinguish their own business interests
from the needs of the university.

The plutonium experiments and other medical
scandals have provoked little discussion or
soul-searching at UR, where institutional silence
and repression continue to prevail over the
voices of memory. What the university needs is
not the closure that Hazel O’Leary and UR
officials want, but a thawing of the glacial
numbness and amnesia that afflicts its
professors, doctors, and students alike.

Welsome’s 40-page series on the plutonium
experiments is available for $1, payable to the
Albuquerque Tribune at 7777 Jefferson NE,
Albuquerque, NM 87109.