In 1946, a 41-year-old hairdresser named Janet Stadt came to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York, to be treated for scleroderma, a rare connective tissue condition. She had escaped the violence against Jews in Belarus during the Second World War and was hoping to begin a new life in the United States. What Stadt didn’t know was that she would become one of the 18 people the U.S. government secretly injected with plutonium from 1945 to 1947 as part of the Manhattan Project. None of them ever found out…
The Manhattan Project was the code name given to the American-led effort to research and build a functional atomic weapon during World War II. It recruited thousands of scientists worldwide and took place across multiple continents. The result of these efforts was the construction of the world’s first ever atomic bombs which were later dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ultimately ending the Second World War.
The mobilization for the program began in 1939 when the president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, received a startling letter from Albert Einstein with an urgent message: Physicists had discovered that uranium had the potential to generate unprecedented amounts of energy that could be used in creating the world’s strongest and most devastating bomb. What was more urgent in Einstein’s letter was that he suspected that Nazi Germany was already stockpiling this radioactive element in hopes of creating a weapon of mass destruction.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States joined the war alongside the Allied forces, and in 1942 the Manhattan Project was officially born, bringing forth an atomic revolution shrouded by secrecy, espionage and a whole lot of controversy. While nuclear research had begun in the U.S. before its involvement in the war, the Manhattan Project stood out because it wasn’t purely theoretical. Its purpose was clear cut. Build an atomic bomb before the Germans. Within a year, it became the number one priority during the war. It got all the funding, all the resources and all of the green lights.
The research was mainly centered around the fission of uranium-235 and plutonium-238 which split and release heat and atoms with smaller atomic numbers when enriched with an extra neutron. The project’s goal was to produce a chain reaction from splitting these atoms to release enough energy to trigger an explosion. Despite its name, the Manhattan Project took place all over the U.S., Canada, England, the Belgian Congo and parts of the South Pacific. But its most famous research facility was the Los Alamos National Laboratory, located in the remote mountains of Northern New Mexico.
As the war advanced and Nazi Germany faltered in Europe, the focus of the project turned to Japan. After the first atomic bomb, called the Gadget, was successfully tested around 240 km (140 miles) from Los Alamos, a uranium bomb called Little Boy and a plutonium bomb called Fat Man were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than 200,000 people were killed instantly, almost all of them civilians. At its peak, the Manhattan Project employed 130,000 workers and by the end of the war the U.S. had spent $2.2 billion to produce Little Boy and Fat man. While the research and deployment of the bombs is in itself controversial, especially with many scientists condemning it, there is another aspect of the program that is just as controversial, or even more so, but is often forgotten. At that time, the project’s personnel faced many issues handling recently discovered elements such as plutonium that had unknown health risks. So, without regard for human life and safety, the U.S. government turned to human experimentation.
The leaders of the Manhattan Project understood the urgency of measuring the impact of radiation on the human body and in 1942 established a division whose purpose was to protect the health of workers and the public from radiation. They were also tasked with studying potential hazards to establish tolerance doses and develop methods of treatment. Ironically, the medical team of the Manhattan Project concluded that in order to do all this, controlled human experiments were necessary. So between 1945 and 1947, 18 subjects were unwittingly injected with plutonium. Several others were exposed to uranium, polonium and americium. The experiments were conducted at Manhattan Project-affiliated hospitals all over the US, knowing that plutonium might be carcinogenic, or even fatal, to the unsuspecting subjects.
Janet Stadt never knew that plutonium was in her veins. The dose that she was administered was 56 times the amount of radiation an average person absorbs in their lifetime. All of that straight into her veins, all at once. Janet lived the remaining 29 years of her life in excruciating pain, suffering from a cancer that ultimately led to her death. Just like Stadt, none of the other test subjects were informed of the substances they were being injected with, and in order to further understand the appalling nature of these experiments, it’s important to highlight some of their stories.
Ebb Cade was the first victim. On March 24th, 1945, he was brought to the Army Hospital in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, after fracturing bones in a car accident. Dr. Hymer Friedell, one of the initial doctors assigned to the Manhattan Project, wrote to Dr. Louis Hempelmann, the Director of Health at Los Alamos, that he found the primary subject for the first human plutonium experiment. He gave Cade the codename HP-12, with HP standing for Human Product.
On April 10th, 1945, Cade was administered 4.7 micrograms of plutonium, which Friedell suspected was nearly five times the human body’s limit. Samples of his teeth and a biopsy of his bones were taken shortly afterward, and Cade was released. The doctors involved did not expect him to live for more than 10 years, yet they did what they did with eyes open wide. Eight years after the injection, Cade died of heart failure.
Similarly, Albert Stevens received a plutonium injection in California only a month after Cade. He was misdiagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, which later turned out to be just a benign ulcer. Stevens was never informed that he did not have cancer, but was instead given a dose of Plutonium-238. Doctors reportedly knew that the dose was potentially carcinogenic, but still administered it which ultimately led to Steven’s death, also from heart failure.
Just like Janet Stadt, Eda Charlton, codename HP-3, was also admitted to Strong Memorial Hospital In Rochester in November 1945. Three weeks later, she received a plutonium injection of 4.9 micrograms. Charlton was discharged in December, but she was regularly hospitalized after that until her death almost 40 years later by cardiac arrest as well. But perhaps the most questionable and horrendous case of all was that of Simeon Shaw, a 4-year-old suffering from terminal bone cancer. He was flown from Australia believing he would be receiving the best available treatments for his condition.
What he received instead was a death sentence in the form of a plutonium injection at California’s UCSF hospital in 1946. What is most shocking about Shaw’s case is that he was immediately flown to Australia afterward with no follow-up on his case, and no radioactive data collected. He died eight months later.
The remaining human test subjects all share similar stories where they either died from the toxic effects of radiation, or were impaired by lifelong illnesses. What’s worse is that human experimentation was justified under the claim that all patients chosen were terminally ill, which was simply not true. A lot of those dosed were misdiagnosed, and repeated errors in procedure, research and documentation were made calling into question the efficacy of the experiments themselves.
The Manhattan Project leaders claimed that these experiments were necessary to advance the science of nuclear physics. However, as we saw with the cases mentioned, the follow-up research was not thorough enough, and many of the samples ended up being contaminated or destroyed. So they basically ruined people’s lives for absolutely nothing. Even after the Manhattan Project achieved its intended goal and World War Two ended, human experimentation continued well into the Cold War. There is evidence of several large-scale projects all throughout the U.S. that failed to inform their subjects of the health hazard of their experiments.
One of the most shocking was intentionally exposing a school for disabled and special needs children in Massachusetts to radioactive iron and calcium in a government-sponsored study. Between 1953 and 1957, uranium injection experiments were also conducted on another 11 patients at Massachusetts General Hospital. Scientists concluded that uranium localized in the kidneys at a much higher rate than previously thought. Sadly, despite the experiment’s results and the lives lost, the occupational standards for uranium did not change, making these human sacrifices unjustified and unnecessary.
In the early 1990s, the Albuquerque Tribune exposed the nature of the experiments and the identities of the test subjects. All of them had already died not knowing that they were dosed by the doctors they trusted to cure them. Robert Oppenheimer, the Los Alamos Laboratory Director and the scientist aptly dubbed the father of the atomic bomb, reportedly knew of the nature of these experiments but expressed that he did not want them conducted in his laboratory. There is even evidence that he personally approved plutonium and uranium shipments to be used for human experimentation.
The secrecy that revolved around the project makes it difficult to trace the chain of command, but there is enough evidence to show that all the health and medical directors of the Manhattan program were somehow invested in this research. They knew what was underway, with many even cheering it on. The families of the victims were eventually compensated by the government, and a total of $4.8 million was paid in damages, a little more than $9 million today. The U.S. government also adopted new laws in 1997 preventing secret scientific testing on humans. Janet Stadt’s nephew said that the money did not help his family get over the issue. His aunt left Belarus to avoid persecution and came to America only to be injected with a radioactive element that would ruin the rest of her life and lead her to her grave.
Today, the Manhattan Project is heralded by U.S. officials for the crucial role it played in ending the Second World War. But the controversy that surrounds it is still prevalent. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs leveled two cities in a matter of seconds, wiping out entire populations. And the testing that led up to those events resulted in early death or lifelong pain for over a dozen unsuspecting civilians. As with all wars, the innocent ended up paying the heftiest price. Many also argue that the success in developing the first atomic bombs led to the age of the Cold War and the race toward the development of nuclear weapons that are now a threat to humanity. After sending Roosevelt his urgent letter, Einstein later came to regret his actions. “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing,” he famously said. When testing the Gadget right outside Los Alamos, Oppenheimer quoted Hindu scripture, foreseeing the immediate threat of nuclear weapons across the planet:
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
One week later, the first atomic bombs were dropped and the world as we know it changed forever. But was the pseudo-peace that existed following the Second World War worth the human sacrifice?