Plutonium injections – Human Radiation Experiments at UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco by Joseph Hamilton and Robert Stone

Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments
Final Report
October 1995
U.S. Government Printing Office
pp. 249-257

Official record from the 1995 Human Radiation Experiments Hearings in the US Congress detailing the Plutonium Injections by Dr. Joseph Hamilton and Dr Robert Stone, of the University of California Berkeley who conducted Plutonium injection experiments on unsuspecting victims in San Francisco at UC San Francisco and at the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco at the same time they were consulting on the cleaning of ships at Navy Bases all across the Pacific to clean ships used in the 1946 atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll. Dr. Hamilton would go onto set the safe level of radiation exposure used by the US Navy in radiation test well into the 1960s in the Bay Area. The problem being they were only concerned with preventing radiation sickness and not the long term effects of exposure to radiation. This resulted in not only their own deaths but countless tens of thousands of people being exposed to nuclear radiation needlessly to this very day! The Liability of UC Berkeley in this crime against humanity is off the charts!

Note they did these human radiation experiments in other locations in the US, at the University of Chicago (the main campus, NOT the Argonne Laboratory), Rochester University in NY, etc but this post will concentrate on the California Plutonium Injections.

The California Experiments

While the University of Rochester had been conducting experiments for the Manhattan Engineer District, a related effort was under way at the University of California at Berkeley.74 Before the war, Drs. Joseph Hamilton and Robert Stone had been exploring medical applications of radioisotopes with the aid of the University of California’s cyclotron. Hamilton and his colleagues had pioneered in using radioisotopes to treat cancer, in particular iodine 131 in the 1930s. At the time the United States entered the war, they were investigating another isotope for cancer therapy, strontium 89. Indeed, it was this area of Hamilton’s expertise that attracted the interest of the Manhattan Project. While Stone moved to the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory during the war, Hamilton remained at the University of California’s Radiation Laboratory, or “Rad Lab,” at Berkeley. A colleague of both men, Dr. Earl Miller, a radiologist at the University of California, reported regularly to Stone on the progress of the Berkeley plutonium project.

Under the Manhattan District contract, Hamilton’s studies originally had involved exposing rats to plutonium in an effort to determine its metabolic fate and thereby project the risk to workers at atomic plants. Toward the end of the war, Hamilton began to conduct plutonium studies on humans for the government.75 Experiments with humans could be handled expeditiously, Hamilton wrote, because of the close relationship between the Rad Lab and the medical school at the University of California at San Francisco.76 In January 1945, Hamilton confirmed to the Manhattan District that he planned “to undertake, on a limited scale, a series of metabolic studies with [plutonium] using human subjects.”77 The purpose of this work, Hamilton wrote, “was to evaluate the possible hazards … to humans who might be exposed to them, either in the course of the operation of the [Chicago] pile, or in the event of possible enemy action against the military and civilian population.”78

Subsequently, three subjects, two adults and one child (known as CAL-1, 2, and 3), were injected with plutonium. In addition, in April 1947 a teenage boy (CAL-A) was injected with americium, and in January 1948 a fifty-five-year-old female cancer patient (CAL-Z) was injected with zirconium.79

On May 10, 1945, Hamilton reported he was awaiting “a suitable patient” for the plutonium experiment.80 Four days later, fifty-eight-year-old Albert Stevens, designated CAL-1, was injected with plutonium, becoming the first human subject in the California portion of the project.81 Albert Stevens was chosen in the belief that he was suffering from advanced stomach cancer.82 Shortly after the injection, however, a biopsy revealed a benign gastric ulcer instead of the suspected cancer. The researchers collected excreta daily for almost one year, analyzing them for plutonium content.83 Evidently, by two months after the injection, Mr. Stevens was considering moving out of the Berkeley area; this would have prevented further collection of excretion specimens. Dr. Hamilton proposed to Drs. Stone and Stafford Warren that he be permitted to “pay the man


fifty dollars per month” in order to keep Mr. Stevens in the area. Hamilton recognized, however, that there were “possible legal and security situations which may present insurmountable obstacles.”84 In response to this request, Dr. Joe Howland (who was reportedly involved with the Oak Ridge plutonium injection) wrote the following to the California area engineer:
Possible solutions to this problem could be:

a. Pay for his care in a hospital or nursing home as a service.
b. Place this individual on Dr. Hamilton’s payroll in some minor capacity without release of any classified information. It is not recommended that he be paid as an experimental subject only.”85

According to a 1979 oral history of Kenneth Scott, an investigator at Berkeley who evidently was responsible for the analysis of Mr. Stevens’s excretion specimens, the patient was paid some amount each month to keep him in the area. However, Dr. Scott also recalled that he never told Mr. Stevens what had happened to him: “His sister was a nurse and she was very suspicious of me. But to my knowledge he never found out.”86

In addition, an April 1946 report on the experiment records that “several highly important tissue samples were secured including bone.”87 It appears that these tissue specimens, which included specimens of rib and spleen, were removed four days after the injection in an operation for the patient’s suspected stomach cancer.88

Four months after Mr. Stevens was injected, Dr. Hamilton told the Manhattan District that the next subject would be injected “along with Pu238 [plutonium], small quantities of radio-yttrium, radio-strontium, and radio-cerium.” The purpose of this experiment was to “compare in man the behavior of these three representative long-lived Fission Products with their metabolic properties in the rat, and second, a comparison can be made of the differences in their behavior from that of Plutonium.”89 This research would provide data to improve extrapolation from higher-dose animal experiments.

Despite Hamilton’s hope to have a second patient by the fall, CAL-2 was not selected until April 1946. Simeon Shaw was a four-year-old Australian boy suffering from osteogenic sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, who was flown from Australia to the University of California for treatment. According to newspaper articles at the time, Simeon’s family had been advised by an Australian physician to seek treatment at the University of California.90 Arrangements then were made by the Red Cross and the U.S. Army for Simeon and his mother to fly by Army aircraft to San Francisco. Within days, he had been injected with a


solution containing plutonium, yttrium, and cerium by physicians at the university.91

Following his discharge on May 25, about a month after his injection, the boy returned to Australia, and no follow-up was conducted. He died in January 1947. In February 1995 an ad hoc committee at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) concluded that probably at least part of the motivation for this experiment was to gather scientific data on the disposition of bone-seeking radionuclides with bone cancers.92

One piece of evidence indicating that there was a secondary research purpose for the injection of CAL-2 was a handwritten note in the boy’s medical record saying that the surgeons removed a section of the bone tumor for pathology and for “studies to determine the rate of uptake of radioactive materials that had been injected prior to surgery, in comparison to normal tissues.”93 It is likely that the CAL-2 experiment was designed both to acquire data for the Manhattan District and also to further the physicians’ own search for radioisotopes that might treat cancer in future patients. The California researchers themselves noted the dual purpose of their research at the time. Hamilton wrote in a report to the Army in the fall of 1945 that there were “military considerations which can be significantly aided by the results of properly planned tracer research.”94

As the February 1995 UCSF report on the experiments concluded, however, the “injections of plutonium were not expected to be, nor were they, therapeutic or of medical benefit to the patients.”95 This corresponds with the evidence of a letter, written by Hamilton in July 1946, three months after the injection of CAL-2, to the author of an article on the peacetime implications of wartime medical discoveries:

To date no fission products, aside from radioactive iodine, have been employed for any therapeutic purposes. There is a possibility that one or more of the long list of radioactive elements produced by uranium fission may be of practical therapeutic value. At the present time, however, we can do no more than speculate.96

Documentary evidence suggests that consent for the injections likely was not obtained from at least some of the subjects at the University of California. A 1946 letter from T. S. Chapman, with the Manhattan District’s Research Division, said the following regarding preparations for injections:

. . . preparations were being made for injection in humans by Drs. [Robert] Stone and [Earl] Miller. These doctors state that the injections would


probably be made without the knowledge of the patient and that the physicians assumed full responsibility. Such injections were not divergent from the normal experimental method in the hospital and the patient signed no release. A release was held to be invalid.

The Medical Division of the District Office has referred “P” reports for project 48A to Colonel Cooney for review and approval is withheld pending his opinion.97

Chapman does not specify whether the “injections” referred to in this letter were injections of plutonium or of some other substance. It is unclear whether “‘P’ reports” refers to Hamilton’s overall progress reports on his tracer research, which had reported mostly on research with plutonium (but also on research with cerium and yttrium), or whether “P” referred specifically to reports on work with plutonium. As we noted at the outset of this chapter, Chapman’s claim that it was commonplace at the time to use patients in experiments without their knowledge and without asking them to sign a “release” is correct.

In the case of Albert Stevens (CAL-1), no documentary evidence that bears on disclosure or consent has been found. Simeon Shaw’s (CAL-2’s) medical file contains a standard form “Consent for Operation and/or Administration of Anesthetic.” This form, however, was signed by a witness attesting to consent of Simeon’s mother one week after the injection and therefore probably applies to a biopsy done a week after the injection, not to the injection itself.98

On December 24, 1946, at the prompting of Major Birchard M. Brundage, who was chief of the Manhattan District’s Medical Division, Colonel K. D. Nichols, commander of the Manhattan District, ordered a halt to injections of “certain radioactive substances” into human subjects at the University of California.99 “Such work,” Nichols wrote, “does not come under the scope of the Manhattan District Programs and should not be made a part of its research plan. It is therefore deemed advisable by this office not only to recommend against work on human subjects but also to deny authority for such work under the terms of the Manhattan contract.” The following week, the civilian AEC took over responsibility for all Manhattan District research and temporarily reaffirmed the Manhattan District’s suspension of human experimentation at the University of California.100 It is unclear why this action was taken.


When the civilian Atomic Energy Commission took over for the


Manhattan District on January 1, 1947, the plutonium injections provoked a strong reaction at the highest levels. One immediate result was the decision to keep information on the plutonium injections secret, evidently for reasons not directly related to national security, but because of public relations and legal liability concerns. The other immediate result, as we saw in chapter 1, was the issuing of requirements for future human subjects research as articulated in letters by the AEC’s general manager, Carroll Wilson.

In December 1946, as the civilian AEC was about to open its doors, Hymer Friedell, who had been deputy medical director of the Manhattan Engineer District, recommended the declassification of one of the plutonium reports, “CH [Chicago]-3607–The Distribution and Excretion of Plutonium in Two Human Subjects.” The report, Friedell argued, “will not in my opinion result in the release of information beyond that authorized for disclosure by the current Declassification Guide.”101

Friedell’s recommendation was soon reversed. Officials with the new AEC had learned of the human injection experiments, and on February 28, 1947, an AEC declassification officer concluded that declassification was out of the question. The reasons are revealed in a previously classified document recently found at Oak Ridge:

The document [CH-3607] appears to be the most dangerous since it describes experiments performed on human subjects, including the actual injection of the metal plutonium into the body. The locations of these experiments are given and the results, even to the autopsy findings in the two cases. It is unlikely that these tests were made without the consent of the subjects, but no statement is made to that effect and the coldly scientific manner in which the results are tabulated and discussed would have a very poor effect on the public. Unless, of course, the legal aspects were covered by the necessary documents, the experimenters and the employing agencies, including the U.S., have been laid open to a devastating lawsuit which would, through its attendant publicity, have far reaching results.102

It is not clear to the Advisory Committee on what basis the declassification officer who wrote this comment concluded that it was unlikely that consent was not obtained from the Chicago subjects. This statement could be read as careful bureaucratic language, intended to leave an appropriate paper trail in the event of subsequent legal problems. On the other hand, the statement does


support the claim, noted earlier, made by one of the Chicago doctors in 1974 that some form of oral consent for the injections had been obtained from the Chicago subjects. It is clear that there was no documentation of disclosure or consent on which the AEC could rely. As a consequence, secrecy was to be maintained, not as a defense against foreign powers, but to avoid a “devastating lawsuit” and “attendant publicity.” Upon further review the report was “reclassified ‘Restricted’ on 3/31/47.” 103 In a March 19, 1947, memorandum, Major Brundage, by that time chief of the AEC’s Medical Division, explained:

The Medical Division also agrees with Public Relations that it would be unwise to release the paper ‘Distribution and Excretion of Plutonium’ primarily because of medical legal aspects in the use of plutonium in human beings and secondly because of the objections of Dr. Warren and Colonel Cooney that plutonium is not available for extra Commission experimental work, and thus this paper’s distribution is not essential to off Project 104 experimental procedures.105

In July 1947, Argonne National Laboratory’s declassification officer, Hoylande D. Young, inquired about possible declassification of this report as well as Hamilton’s report on the CAL-1 injection. She stated that the directors of Argonne’s Biology and Health Divisions (including J. J. Nickson, one of the authors of the Chicago report on the injections) believed that declassification of these reports would not be “prejudicial to the national interests.”106 The AEC continued to withhold declassification of these reports, however, on the grounds that they involved “experimentation on human subjects where the material was not given for therapeutic reasons.”107 Thus, there was clearly no expectation at the time that the plutonium injections would benefit the patient-subjects but some expectation that the general public might be disturbed by human experimentation in the absence of a prospect of offsetting benefit.

In 1950, Wright Langham and the Rochester doctors undertook to prepare a “Plutonium Report”108 that would be “the last word on the plutonium situation.”109 It would be the “last word” to only a select few. In 1947, Rochester’s Andrew Dowdy had urged Los Alamos to give advance notice of declassification of the Rochester part of the experiment “because of possible unfavorable public relations and in an attempt to protect Dr. [Samuel] Bassett from any possible legal entanglements.”110 This is likely a reference to the same concern raised in the discussion of Dr. Bassett’s seminar about his having experimented upon his own patients, except in this case the context is the plutonium rather than the uranium injections. “We think,” Langham wrote to Stafford Warren, “the classification will be ‘Secret,’ and the circulation limited, depending on Dr. Shields Warren’s [the


head of AEC’s Division of Biology and Medicine] wishes.”” In August, Shields Warren approved the report for “CONFIDENTIAL classification and limited circulation as [Dr. Langham] requested.”112

Even though its data and analysis were the basis for widespread plutonium safety procedures, the report remained unavailable to the public until 1971 when, at the urging of Dr. Patricia Durbin, it was downgraded to “Official Use Only.”113 (This categorization means that while the document was not likely to be released to the public absent specific request, it could be disclosed.)

What was it that was so potentially embarrassing about the plutonium experiments? The answer appears to lie in the 1947 letters from General Manager Wilson, discussed in detail in chapter 1. These letters state rules for both the conduct of human experiments and the declassification of previously conducted secret experiments.”114

In his April 1947 letter, Wilson stated the requirements that there be expectation that research “may have therapeutic effect” and that at least two doctors “certify in writing (made part of an official record) to the patient’s understanding state of mind, to the explanation furnished him, and to his willingness to accept the treatment.115 In his November 1947 letter, Wilson reiterated these terms for human experiments, again calling for “reasonable hope . . . that the administration of such a substance will improve the condition of patient” and this time calling for “informed consent in writing” by the patient.”116 All of the seventeen plutonium injections conducted prior to the letters violated both these terms. As a consequence, they would have to stay secret. The only secret experiments that could be declassified were those that satisfied these requirements; to do otherwise was to risk adverse public reaction. Thus, the decision to keep the plutonium reports secret was itself an example of the way in which the AEC’s assertion of conditions for human experimentation was coupled with the decision to keep secret those experiments that evidently did not adhere to these conditions (see chapter 13).


In March 1947, just as he was declaring that “public relations” required the reclassification of plutonium data. Medical Division chief Major Brundage approved a 1947-48 “Research Program and Budget” for Rochester that provided for metabolism studies with polonium, plutonium, uranium, thorium, radiolead, and radium.”117 The program was put on hold by the AEC soon after.”118

The future of the metabolism work at Rochester apparently was decided when Shields Warren was named the first chief of the AEC’s Division of Biology and Medicine in fall 1947. In his private diary for December 30, 1947, Warren tersely noted: “Ordered abandonment of human isotope program at Rochester.119 The program at the University of California at Berkeley, however, continued. On December 4, 1947, Shields Warren had met with Hamilton and Stone; 120 the


decision to allow the program to continue clearly was not a hasty one. A 1974 recollection of Shields Warren indicates that his decision to allow the program to continue may have been due to Hamilton’s assertion in December 1947 that it had been the University of California’s practice to obtain some form of (undocumented) consent. 121

According to Warren, Hamilton had said that subjects were told “they would receive an injection of a new substance that was too new to say what it might do but that it had some properties like other substances that had been used to control growth processes in patients, or something of that general sort.”122 Warren went on to observe that “you could not call it informed consent because they did not know what it was, but they knew that it was a new and to them unknown substance.” 123 Warren’s observation does not go far enough, however. If Warren’s secondhand account is accurate and this is indeed what the patient subjects at the University of California were told, then they were more misled than informed. Analogizing plutonium to substances that “control growth processes in patients,” even in prospect, might reasonably lead patients to believe that they would be receiving a substance with some hope of treating their cancer. Certainly such a remark would not communicate to patients that the experiment to be performed was not for their own benefit. It would have been appropriate that these patients be told that their participation might benefit future patients with the same conditions. It would have been crucial to distinguish, however, between this legitimate explanation of potential benefit to future cancer patients and misleading the patient into believing the experiment might benefit him or her.

Human Experimentation Continues at the University of California
By the summer of 1947, human experimentation had resumed at the University of California under AEC contract. In June, “CAL-A,” a teenage Asian-American bone cancer patient at Chinese Hospital in San Francisco, was injected with americium. An instruction in the patient’s file by one of Hamilton’s assistants specifies that “we will use the same procedure as with Mr. S,”124 evidently a reference to Albert Stevens. Dr. Durbin, Hamilton’s associate, believes that CAL-A’s guardian was informed of the procedure followed in that case.125 The Advisory Committee received incomplete records for CAL-A that contained no evidence of disclosure or consent; UCSF has told the Committee that records at Chinese Hospital from the 1950s and earlier have been destroyed. 126

A thirty-six-year-old African-American railroad porter named Elmer Allen, code-named CAL-3, was believed to be suffering from bone cancer and was injected with plutonium at the University of California in July 1947. His left leg was amputated shortly thereafter. There is a note in his medical chart signed by two physicians, stating that the experimental nature was “explained to the patient, who agreed to the procedure” and that “the patient was in fully oriented and in sane mind.”127 It is likely that this note was intended to fulfill one of the


April 1947 conditions for human experimentation, which allowed for such a procedure as documentation of having obtained the patient-subject’s consent. It is not clear from the note, however, whether in explaining about the experimental nature of the procedure the physicians told the patient about the potential effects of the injection, as required by the Wilson letter, or that the injection was not intended to be of medical benefit to the patient. On this second point, the injection was in violation of the Wilson letter, which also required that there be an “expectation that it may have therapeutic effect.” 128 As acknowledged by the February 1995 UCSF report, there was never any expectation on the part of the experimenters that the injection would be of therapeutic benefit to Mr. Allen.

Mr. Allen lived until 1991. According to UCSF’s 1995 review of patient subjects medical charts, upon biopsy of his tumor a pathologic diagnosis was made of chondrosarcoma, a type of malignant bone tumor. UCSF reported that patients with this type of tumor “frequently survive many years beyond diagnosis if there is complete excision of the primary tumor.”129 This pathology finding suggests that Mr. Allen was a long-term cancer survivor. A note in his patient chart recorded that the tumor was “malignant but slow growing and late to metastasize. Prognosis therefore moderately good.” 130

On March 15, 1995, Elmerine Whitfield Bell, the daughter of Elmer Allen, told the Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C., that she:

continue[s] to be appalled by the apparent attempts at cover-ups, the inferences that the nature of the times, the 1940s, allowed scientists to conduct experiments without getting a patient’s consent or without mentioning risks. We contend that my father was not an informed participant in the plutonium experiment.

He was asked to sign his name several times while a patient at the University of California hospital in San Francisco. Why was he not asked to sign his name permitting scientists to inject him with plutonium? Why was his wife, who was college trained, not consulted in this matter?

On January 5, 1948, a fifty-five-year-old woman with cancer was injected with zirconium at the University of California. 131 The patient record for this case has not yet been located, nor have any other documents that might bear on whether this experiment was conducted in compliance with the consent requirements of the Wilson letters. We do know that the injection of zirconium was not expected to benefit the subject herself.132

A secret report on the zirconium injection was reviewed by the AEC in


light of public relations and liability concerns. In August of that year, the report was denied declassification with the approval of Shields Warren, who wrote, “This document should not be declassified for general medical publication [and] it would be very difficult to rewrite it in an acceptable manner.” 133 Warren was responding to a memorandum from Albert H. Holland, Jr., medical adviser at Oak Ridge, which specified that the concern about rewriting had to do with public relations and the fact that the report “specifically involves experimental human therapeutics.” 134




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