Mike's Reviews > The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War

The Plutonium Files by Eileen Welsome
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Mar 14, 2012

it was amazing

I need to preface this review by saying a couple things about myself moreso than about the book: For one, I grew up wanting to either be a fighter pilot or work for the Department of Energy in one of the fabled national labs. I always saw the military and the DOE as leading the way in many areas of the most advanced of high technologies and I wanted very badly to be part of that. So I have respect for these institutions, possibly more than many readers who will pick up this book. Secondly, when I first read this book, it was around the year 2000 or 2001, and I had along with another student begged a nurse to provide us with a tour of a long closed-off portion of a local hospital. We found everything from old surgical instruments to patient records left to rot. That same night, I checked this out of the university library.

I was in for an unexpected treat, but one that leaves you hard-pressed to sleep at night. This book details the experiments conducted by the military, DOE, and other Federal authorities and their contractors on American patients and test subjects ranging from convicts to fighter pilots to school children in a home for the retarded. In most of these cases, the test subjects were totally unaware they were even taking part in a medical research study. There was no informed consent and when there was, a lot of details were left out. Now, for the worst of it: these studies were conducted to find out what the effects were of various types of radioactive isotopes on the human body. These patients were injected, fed, or otherwise exposed to radioactive substances without even knowing it, and at the behest of our government. Why was the government so keenly interested in this topic? Because it was the apex of the Cold War and many military planners believed that sooner or later, the Russians would attack and we would be exposed to nuclear fallout. Thus, they wanted to know how to prepare doctors and hospitals to respond to such a disaster.

Eileen Welsome is an investigative journalist who began her research on this topic after she stumbled upon it and wrote a shorter multi-part story for a major newspaper in the American Southwest. Her research and writing alike are first-rate, and she won a Pulitzer for this book, as well she should have. The book reads like a horror story but is all true and is so well-documented it pains you to even imagine the hours Welsome must have spent in dusty academic libraries and government file rooms. Like all the best writers on topics like this (Laurie Garrett's research on emerging diseases comes to mind as does Stephen Hall's book on the immune system and the quest for interferons), Welsome takes the time to paint portraits of the patients, doctors, military officers, and other players in these true stories so we can relate to them on a human level. She also allows the facts to come forth and speak for themselves: while the lines between "good" and "bad" in a tale such as this may seem pretty obvious, she points out the nuances and explains why researchers believed their work was not only valid and just, but also necessary.

The lion's share of the experiments Welsome details here were not declassified and made public until around 1994 when President Clinton's Secretary of Energy, Hazel O'Leary, declassified them on the president's orders. Despite that, the matter didn't make as much a stir in the news even then, but thankfully Welsome's book will serve as a much-needed document of this aspect of American history.
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