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he U.S. government had always experimented on its own people with various vaccines, weaponry, or other dangerous materials during the early 20th century. However, one of the most shocking instances that not many people are aware of is the time such innocent citizens were injected with plutonium to see what would happen if a human assimilated such radioactive material.

It all started with the famous and infamous Manhattan Project and with the people working on it. In the effort of building the first atomic bomb, scientists had to understand how radioactive material would affect a human being, this is why they carried out various experiments on labor workers that were part of the project, in most instances without their consent.

A new resource

Plutonium was first introduced on December 14, 1940, by Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Joseph W. Kennedy, Edwin M. McMillan, and Arthur C. Wahl by deuteron bombardment of uranium in the 60-inch cyclotron at the University of California, Berkeley. The potential that these new nuclear resources had was incredible but very difficult to control. Experts within the field didn’t yet understand how harmful this material was, that is why they suggested further investigation before being used to produce anything.

60-inch cyclotron, 1939. This shows the cyclotron at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Berkeley, soon after completion in 1939. The key figures in its development and use are shown, standing, left to right: Dr D Cooksey, Dr D Corson, Dr Ernest Orlando Lawrence (1901–58), the inventor of the cyclotron; Dr R Thornton, Dr J Backus, WS Sainsbury [W. W. Salisbury], Dr LW Alvarez (1911–88) and Dr Edwin Mattison McMillan (1907–1991). (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

An article explaining the discovery was prepared by the team and sent to the Physical Review to be published in March 1941, but the paper was withdrawn after the subsequent discovery that an isotope of the new element, plutonium-239, could undergo fission and be used as fuel for an atomic bomb.

The United States took the idea of atomic weapons into consideration in 1939 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from Albert Einstein explaining the possibility of the Germans to revolt with atomic weapons. They had the resources as well as the brightest mind in the world at the time so if Einstein said it was a possibility then it was no joke.

Einstein — Szilard letter to Rosevelt (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Manhattan project was mainly focused on building atomic weaponry, but a small portion was also dedicated to the effect this new resource had on humans. Historians talking about the Manhattan project never focus on this part, but one has in very small detail. Historian Eileen Welsome had written in her book The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War”(published 2010) the sort of experiments that have been done on U.S. citizens.

Injecting Plutonium into people

Some of the negative effects of this radioactive material were already known, but little caution was taken by those working with plutonium. The constant exposure of some scientists had led to medical implications. A lot of plutonium was carried around which led to a large scale of contamination within public zones.

In order for scientists to know for sure what they are working with, they started new research which planned to find out the negative health effects it can have. They started slowly, using rats to study the toxicity level of the plutonium radiation. The results were quite biased and unreliable, therefore in 1945, they started experimenting on humans.

As not much was known in the world of science about plutonium, the U.S. government decided to keep everything secret by not even telling those tested on about the experiment or what they are tested on. A total of 18 people between the ages of 4 and 69 were injected with plutonium between 1945 to 1947. Every single person injected was shortly diagnosed with a terminal illness!

One of the subjects was Albert Stevens, a painter from Ohio who was in his early 50s. In his late 40s, he was diagnosed with cancer and that is why he visited this new center which he was told was treating cancer. He was told by the medics that he had no chance to survive, but there was a possible cure. The “cure” which they gave him was a huge dose of plutonium (he was never told what was in the syringe).

After some time when the next set of medical analyses were done, the scientists actually thought that the plutonium removed all the cancerous cells, but in fact, Albert never had cancer, just a very bad gastric ulcer. Albert lived until 1966 when he died at the age of 79 from heart disease. It is believed that heart disease was caused by a high dose of plutonium. His corpse was incinerated and the ashes were taken by the scientists for further research.

What is surprising is that Steven was the subject who got the highest dose and lived the longest since being injected. Of the 18 subjects, eight of them died in 2 years from being injected. Some of the scientists involved in this project have mentioned upon this information being found out that none of the subjects have passed away due to the plutonium, but existing health problems. However, a material that was used to kill millions of people is surely not something good to consume.

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