Chapter 13: “The Rochester Production Line”
On September 5, 1945, just three days after Japan formally surrendered, Los Alamos chemist Wright Langham sat down with scientists working at the Manhattan Annex, the secret research facility at the University of Rochester to plan the most comprehensive set of plutonium injections yet undertaken. This new round of injections would be a collaborative effort. Langham would supply the plutonium; the Rochester doctors, the patients. According to documents made public in 1994-1995, the Rochester segment of the plutonium experiment was part of a larger, planned study in which fifty patients were to be injected with radioisotopes of plutonium, polonium, uranium, lead, and radium.
Rochester’s Manhattan Annex was originally located across the street from the medical school and connected by a tunnel. There, as at all Manhattan Project sites, secrecy was closely guarded. Constructed in five months, the Annex employed 350 people by the end of the war. Its activities were shielded from intruders by Army guards, and the occupants’ backgrounds were thoroughly investigated to make sure “they could be depended upon to keep secret work which contributed toward the development and production of the atomic [bomb].”
Rochester was far from the noisy industrial plants and hectic laboratories of the Manhattan Project. Oddly enough though, the cold, industrial city had numerous links to the bomb project. Rochester was the home of George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak, Co. A subsidiary of his company, the Tennessee Eastman Corp., was the first operating contractor of the gigantic Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge where enriched uranium was produced…
At the time of the meeting, less than six months had elapsed since Wright Langham had sent that first ampoule of plutonium to Oak Ridge to be injected into Ebb Cade. But the world had changed radically in those months, and Langham, the young chemist who once seemed destined for a mundane career on the Oklahoma Panhandle, now found himself in the vanguard of that change. He had bucked across the desert at the Trinity site in an Army jeep , bulky radiation detector in hand, as the purples and golds of the first atomic bomb ascended into the New Mexico sky. He had worked alongside the scientists responsible for Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and Fat Man, the bomb that exploded three days later over Nagasaki.
The meeting that Langham attended in Rochester had been ordered by Stafford Warren (who was to land in Hiroshima in three days). Most of the men present were Warren’s colleagues or students from his prewar days. Among them were Robert Fink, William Bale, Andrew Dowdy, and Harold Hodge. At the request of the Manhattan Engineer District, Bale had “activated” a metabolic ward at Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital to carry out “certain tracer studies” with long-lived isotopes. The ward, at least in the early years, appears to have been used exclusively for the radioisotope studies.
The protocol for the plutonium injections, which was written by Wright Langham and not made public until 1995, disclosed that the experiment was a result of the Rochester meeting as well as “numerous conversations with Col. Warren, Col. Friedell, and Dr. L.H. Hempelmann.” According to that protocol, only two subjects were to be admitted tot he metabolic ward during the first six weeks of the program. Once the technicalities were worked out, however, scientists hoped to handle four patients simultaneously.
The patients were generally transferred to the ward from other parts of the hospital. The small ward where the injections were administered and the excretion samples collected was supervised by Samuel Bassett, a pleasant-looking doctor educated at Cornell University who had also attended the September 5 planning meeting.
Each patient was assigned the initials “HP” followed by a number. According to one document, the “HP” stood for “human product.” The doctors were on the lookout for patients who had relatively normal metabolisms. Langham wrote:
At the meeting it seemed to be more or less agreed that the subjects might be chronic arthritics or carcinoma patients without primary involvement of bone, liver, blood or kidneys. It is of primary importance that the subjects have relatively normal kidney and liver function, as it is desirable to obtain a metabolic picture comparable to that of an active worker. Undoubtedly the selection of subjects will be greatly influenced by what is available.
Under the tentative plan, the group decided that each patient was to be injected with an average of five micrograms, or five millionths of a gram of plutonium. That was five times the amount of plutonium the Manhattan Project scientists had just declared could be retained without harm in the human body and was also more than what Wright Langham and other scientists were willing to risk putting into their own bodies. “We considered doing such experiments at one time,” :Langham wrote in 1952, “but plutonium is considered to be sufficiently potentially dangerous to discourage our doing absorption experiments on ourselves.”
Though five micrograms was the planned dosage, the actual amount of plutonium injected into the patients varied from 4.6 to 6.5 micrograms. The cumulative radiation dose received by each patient was dependent on two factors: the amount of radioactive material injected into the body and how long the subjects lived. The longer the patients lived, the larger their cumulative dose.
Six weeks following the Rochester meeting, the program became operational when the first patient was injected with plutonium. In all, eleven patients would be injected there between October 16, 1945, and July 16, 1946. But before that first injection could take place, many housekeeping details had to be worked out.
The patients’ initial two weeks on the metabolic ward were slated as a control period in which they were to be trained to collect their own urine and stool specimens. “The period of indoctrination,” Bassett later wrote, “usually required about ten days.” After collection, the urine samples were heated in a steam bath for two hours and then cooled. An adhesive mortar was then placed around the top of the jars so that “any leakage which might have occurred would be revealed to the person receiving the urine for analysis.” A preservative was added to the stool samples, and the mixture was boiled for ten minutes before it was transferred to half-gallon fruit jars. The excretion samples, as well as periodic blood samples, were to be collected on a strict schedule and shipped in wooden crates to Los Alamos.
According to the protocol prepared by Langham, Stafford Warren had suggested a Lieutenant Valentine perform the injections. But Hannah Silberstein, a woman who apparently worked on the metabolic ward, wrote that Bassett made the first injection. It’s not clear from the documents, however, whether Bassett injected all the patients. When Louis Hempelmann was asked about the experiment by AEC investigators in 1974, he said Bassett prepared the syringes and handed them to a physician who injected the patients. Hempelmann said he was “quite positive” that the physician making the injections did not know the contents of the syringe.
There is no evidence that any of the Rochester patients gave their consent for the experiment or knew what was being injected into them. In fact, Hempelmann told investigators that a “deliberate decision was made not to inform the patient of the nature of the product that was injected.”
Amedio Lovecchio, a sixty-seven-year-old Sicilian immigrant whom Bassett described as “well preserved for his years,” became the first of the Rochester plutonium injectees. A proud-looking patriarch, Lovecchio had two fig trees in his backyard. Each fall he bent the trees to the ground and buried them deep in the soil to protect them from the harsh winter. Each spring he gave the first fig to a pregnant daughter-in-law. Lovecchio was admitted to the hospital after an ulcer hemorrhaged so severely that he required a transfusion. Code-named HP-1, Lovecchio was injected at 3:30 P.M . October 16 by Dr. Bassett “with no ill effects,” Hannah Silberstein reported. Lovecchio lived for another fourteen years after the plutonium was administered. He was working as a maintenance man when he contracted pneumonia and died on January 12, 1960.
William Purcell, a forty-eight-year-old hemophiliac who was assigned the number HP-2
was injected five days after Lovecchio. Purcell was a cheerful, red-haired Irishman who had been admitted to the hospital thirty-eight times. He was well known and well liked by the staff and was listed as the proprietor of a cigar store on his death certificate. Bassett confessed in a letter to Wright Langham and Louis Hempelmann that he had been unable to get the three control samples of blood from Purcell prior to the injection. “The reason being that he is a hemophiliac who has been in the hospital for studies of blood clotting. This had led to a thrombosis of one of his veins which we felt should be given time to heal, and hence, we kept our venous punctures down to a minimum. I will be able to furnish the requisite number of post injection blood [samples].” Purcell’s condition eventually improved, and he was injected with plutonium on October 23. He died on August 4, 1948, two and a half years later, from what doctors described as “brain disease.”
Eda Schultz Charlton, HP-3, and Jean Daigneault, HP-4, were both injected on November 27. Charlton, a housewife, was to live for another four decades. Daigneault, who was only eighteen years old, died on April 19, 1947, a year and a half after the plutonium was administered. Daigneault suffered from Cushing’s syndrome, a metabolic disorder characterized by a moon-shaped face and excessive weight in the trunk. She was studied intensively by doctors interested in that disease. On one occasion, when she was put on a rice and raisin diet, she told her sister that she craved a hot dog. As a teenager, she had won the western New York women’s breast stroke swimming championship.
Paul Galinger, HP-5, a tall, thin man with trembling hands and slow speech, was fifth in line. He was a machine shop foreman whose handicapped son had died the previous year. Doctors diagnosed Galinger, then fifty-six, as suffering from depression and an incurable nerve disorder now called Lou Gehrig’s disease. “So far he has cooperated quite well but has a difficult personality,” Bassett confided to Langham. “The prognosis is poor and fatal termination can be expected within a year.” Galinger was injected on November 30, 1945, and died on April 29, 1946. Even before he was dead, Bassett had begun making plans to retrieve his organs. “This may be counting our chickens before they are hatched but I thought it might be well to settle on some of these details before we are confronted with the necessity of obtaining specimens. I presume you would like a sample of blood from the heart or lungs?” Bassett inquired in a letter to Langham.
His carefully laid plans notwithstanding, Bassett learned only by chanced that the much-anticipated autopsy was under way, and he had to rush to the hospital to lay claim to the specimens he wanted from Galinger’s body. “We arrived after all the dissection had been completed and only had about thirty minutes in which to get the material together,” he told Langham. In another letter he added, “The specimens from both the large and small bowel so nearly filled the jars that there was an insufficient space for the alcohol and hence a good deal of decomposition has occurred. This probably holds true for the liver samples as also. I have added a little formalin to each of the intestinal samples to try to reduce formation of gas.”
By the end of 1945, five of the eleven injections had been completed and the Rochester program was beginning to have the efficient feel of an assembly line. But there were still a lot of messy details to work out, even acts of God to cope with. As the holiday season approached, Bassett worried the experiment would grind to a halt. “It begins to look now as if we might be without patients at Christmas. No one seems to want to be in the hospital on that particular day. I will do what I can, however, to keep the production line going.”
Bassett’s efforts were unsuccessful and there were no new injections in Rochester during the month of December and January. They resumed February 1, 1946, with John Mousso, HP-6, a gentle-tempered handy-man from East Rochester, a village seven miles east of the city. Mousso, forty-four at the time, was admitted to the hospital for multiple infections on his eyelids and toes, but the underlying illness that plagued him was Addison’s disease, an adrenal gland disorder that made him nauseated, lethargic, and achy. Mousso was a familiar figure in East Rochester: sweeping out the fire hall, shoveling snow from the church steps, emptying the penny meters along leafy streets named Elm, Oak, and Hickory. Bassett described Mousso as a “well developed, but thin male with deeply pigmented skin.” Supported by his deep love for his wife, Rose, Mousso was to live for many decades after the injection was administered. But he returned to the hospital often, and on several occasions, doctors surreptitiously gathered excretion samples from him.
Edna Bartholf, HP-7, was injected February 8. Edna was fifty-nine years old and suffered from rheumatic heart disease. Except for the “marked” swelling that extended from her hips to her feet, she looked healthy. But when Bassett placed his stethoscope to her chest, he heard the irregular heartbeat. Bartholf had spent her life in Morganville, a tiny hamlet near Rochester that today has a population of 150. She was active in the Congregational Christian Church, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Ladies’ Aid Society, and other groups. “Her church was the thing she was most interested in,” her niece, Winfred Thater, recalled. Bartholf lived another nine months after the plutonium was administered, dying on October 27, 1946, of pulmonary failure.
Next was Harry Slack, a sixty-nine-year-old janitor at a local YMCA and an alcoholic suffering from malnutrition and cirrhosis of the liver. Little is known about Slack’s life. He enlisted in the Army at the age of twenty-one to fight in the Spanish-American War, but his company made it only as far as Virginia. Slack had been admitted to the hospital on December 12, 1945, because he had been having trouble breathing and his abdomen was enlarged. Bassett described him as a “poorly nourished, weak, thin male who is slightly confused.”
Slack’s health continued to decline while he was in the hospital, and he was “moribund” when the plutonium was administered on February 20, 1946. Six days later he died of pneumonia. Apparently surprised by Slack’s sudden death, Bassett dashed off a letter to Wright Langham: “I hope this next part of the letter will not prove too much of a shock to you since we have run through an acute experiment. No collections of urine or feces were made in this instance.”
The experiment hadn’t been a total loss, however. An autopsy had been performed less than six hours after Slack’s death, and researchers would have his organs to analyze. “We were somewhat pressed for time and perhaps did not obtain as much in the way of bone samples as we might have,” Bassett added. He was certain, though, that the plutonium had mixed sufficiently in Slack’s body and would be detectable in the harvested organs.
Langham was a little startled by the news. But he in turn had something even more startling to suggest, which apparently was inspired by rumors he had heard about the experiments taking place in Chicago: Inject the next terminal patient with fifty micrograms of plutonium, he instructed. Such a dose would be equal to fifty times the amount that several researchers, including Langham himself, had estimated could be tolerated without harm in the human body: “This would permit the analysis of much smaller samples and would make my work considerably easier. I have just received word that Chicago is performing two terminal experiments using 95 micrograms each. I feel reasonably certain there would be no harm in using larger amounts of material if you are sure the case is a terminal one.”
Bassett, in a reply dated March 27, appeared to have been troubled by the idea that the plutonium may have hastened Slack’s death but nevertheless agreed to try to implement Langham’s plan:
This case did not turn out to be terminal, but at the time I started the experimental period, there was sufficient uncertainty regarding the outcome to make me feel that the dose should be within the range of tolerance…The larger doses that you mention, particularly 50 micrograms, might be given if a suitable opportunity occurred and if you are very anxious that I should carry it through, I will see what can be done.
Slack was actually the eighth person injected but was given the code number HP-11. The reason for the inconsistency is unknown. Perhaps the experimenters originally planned not to include Slack in their study because of the failure to obtain any urine or stool samples but then changed their minds as they were compiling their data for their final report.
About two weeks after Slack’s demise, Janet Stadt, HP-8, a forty-one-year-old woman suffering from scleroderma, a chronic skin disease that hardens and fixes the skin to underlying tissues and eventually disrupts the functioning of the internal organs, was injected. Bassett described Janet Stadt as a “thin and pale female” and carefully chronicled the symptoms of her disease: Her eyelids were tight and the skin was drawn around her mouth. The flesh on her hands was so thick and taut her fingers could not uncurl completely.
Stadt’s son, Milton, said at a public hearing in 1995 that his mother’s disease was so painful that she eventually became addicted to painkillers. “I had to get up in the middle of the night, sterilize needles, fill them with Demerol, and she would inject herself with Demerol for the pain,” he said. To add to her misery, Janet Stadt received 1,000 rem of radiation during her lifetime, the highest dose of any of the Rochester patients, according to calculations performed in 1995 by the Los Alamos scientists. She died on November 22, 1975, nearly three decades after the injection was administered. Her death certificate states that the cause of death was malnutrition caused by cancer of the larynx.
Milton Stadt did not learn that his mother had been injected with plutonium until he received a call from Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary in 1994. “My mother,” he said, “went in for scleroderma, which is a skin disorder, and a duodenal ulcer, and somehow she got pushed over into this lab where these monsters were.”
Fred Sours, HP-9, was injected April 3. In the town of Gates, a suburb of Rochester, Sours held the position of supervisor, a job roughly the equivalent to mayor. He was sixty-four years old and suffering from dermatomyositis, a rare disorder in which the skin becomes inflamed and the muscles grow weak. His face was red; his eyelids and ears also were red and swollen. “Man appears chronically ill, skin is dry and loose,” wrote Bassett. Sours died on July 2, 1947 of pneumonia, a year and three months after the injection. When the townspeople of Gates heard the news, they lowered the town flag to half mast for four days and the town board issued a proclamation saying: “His honesty was known to all, and the well-being and interests of the town, of which he was the chief executive officer, were his early aim during his official life.” While the people of Gates were mourning Sours’s demise, Manhattan Project doctors were harvesting his organs. The plutonium was everywhere – in his liver, spleen, kidneys, and bones – everywhere except for his heart.
Bassett received a steady stream of polite but critical letters from Langham while the injections were under way. The Mason jars containing the urine and stool samples often arrived at the New Mexico laboratory broken or leaking. The samples were sometimes mislabeled, and in some cases, the labels were missing altogether. Too much human material had been stuffed into some of the containers and not enough preservative had been poured into others. Only a month after the injections started, Langham found himself overwhelmed by the volume of urine and stool samples. “I would like to suggest,” he said in a letter to Bassett, “that the next patients selected be individuals whose conditions will not require high fluid intake and extremely high diet levels of mineral or nitrogen.”
On another occasion, Langham complained that the iron content in the patients’ diets was interfering with the radiochemical analyses. Bassett then began sending Langham an inventory of the patients’ diets. Among other things, Jean Daigneault was getting pineapple juice, potatoes, squash, ground round steak, and macaroni. William Purcell, the hemophiliac, was getting lots of vegetables, a slice or two of American cheese, and an occasional cup of coffee. Amedio Lovecchio, the Sicilian immigrant who suffered from a bleeding ulcer, was on a “very peculiar” diet prior to the injection, Bassett conceded. “We took him on short notice with the understanding that we could carry out the medical treatment as already planned.”
Before the human injections began, three rats were injected in their tail veins with the same plutonium solution that Langham and Bassett planned to administer to the patients. Only a small percentage of the plutonium went to the rodents’ livers, which made the two scientists more confident that the plutonium injected into the human subjects “would not be taken up in high concentration by a single organ such as the livers,” Bassett wrote. Belatedly, after ten of the eleven injections had been completed, Langham recognized that they had been overly confident. Dangerous amounts of plutonium were, in fact, accumulating in the patients’ livers: “The amazing feature regarding the tissues [of Paul Galinger] was that 48 percent of the material was found in the liver. This result is extremely alarming to me. Results obtained at Chicago more or less confirm the finding. The results indicate that complexing the Plutonium with citrate does not prevent the deposition in the human liver as it does in the case of the rat.”
Wright Langham and Samuel Bassett kept their fears about possible liver damage and other long term-health consequences to themselves, and eventually the patients were discharged from the hospital without ever having been told what had been done to them. For the rest of their lives, the injectees carried within their bodies the plutonium they had received on Samuel Bassett’s metabolic ward. “With regard to ultimate effects [of plutonium], it is too early to predict what may occur,” Bassett wrote in a secret, unpublished report.
For the five decades that followed, it was widely assumed, and reported in the scientific literature, that the patients were very ill and not expected to live much longer. Incredibly, documents released in 1994 and 1995 reveal that that false information was perpetuated largely by a 1950 Los Alamos report written by Wright Langham, Samuel Bassett, and two other scientists. The Los Alamos report, entitled “Distribution and Excretion of Plutonium Administered Intravenously To Man,” was classified secret and not declassified until 1971.
Three of the eleven Rochester patients did die within one year; but three others lived for thirty years or more. After the experiment was completed, Bassett wrote up a rough draft of what had taken place. In the draft, he noted that the patients selected for injection were “a miscellaneous group of male and female hospital patients for the most part with well established diagnoses”:
Preference was given to those who might reasonably gain from continued residence in the hospital for a month or more. Special treatments and other therapy thought to be of benefit to the patients were carried out in the normal manner. The necessity of studying urinary and fecal rates of excretion of Pu [plutonium] automatically excluded cases of advanced renal disease or disturbance in the function of the gastrointestinal tract. Patients with malignant diseases were also omitted from the group on the grounds that their metabolism might be affected in an unknown manner.
Bassett also confessed in his draft report that one of the patients had been misdiagnosed. But his draft was never published. Thus the only published account was the one that came out of Los Alamos under the names of Langham and Bassett and the two other scientists. It omitted Bassett’s description of the patient selection process and his mention of the misdiagnosis. The Los Alamos version, considered for decades the authoritative source on the experiment, states that the patients were “suffering from chronic disorders such that survival for ten years was highly improbable.” Other statements later made by Langham himself furthered the impression that the patients’ conditions were terminal. At a chemical conference in 1956, Langham described the patients as “hopelessly sick.” And in a 1962 paper, he described them as “terminal.”
The plutonium experiment was temporarily interrupted in the early summer of 1946 when Langham and Bassett were pressed into service by Stafford Warren for Operation Crossroads, a joint military exercise in which the first two atomic bombs of the peacetime era were detonated on an remote atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Warren had found it so difficult to recruit radiation monitors that he had been reduced to asking anyone who could read or write to join the operation. Langham was hopeful that he and Bassett might be able to talk with Warren about the experiment. It’s likely the three men did spend a little time together, although there are no documents describing such a meeting.
In their absence, a Rochester physician named Helen E. Van Alstine continued to look for “suitable” subjects. In a July 10 letter to Wright Langham, she said, “We were finally successful and had admitted to the special metabolic division on July 8th, a 52-year-old negro male with a diagnosis of severe heart disease….”
The subject was Daniel Nelson, who was recuperating from a heart attack when he was shipped to the metabolic ward for “special studies.” The transfer to that ward was the last of a string of misfortunes suffered by Nelson. A cook for most of his life, he had lost all his money in the stock market shortly before the heart attack. He was injected with plutonium on July 16 and given the number HP-10. When he was discharged from the hospital, he had no place to convalesce and finally sought help from a now-defunct rest home for veterans in Mount McGregor, New York. Nelson lived for ten years and eleven months after he was injected, dying of heart disease on June 2, 1957.
Bassett returned to the United States soon after the first atomic bomb was detonated during Operation Crossroads, and was in Rochester by the time Nelson was injected. But Langham remained to see the second shot, an underwater explosion that pushed a dome of radioactive water high into the sky. “The second test at Bikini was really a great show. I am sorry that you did not stay to see it,” Langham told Bassett when he returned to Los Alamos. Reinvigorated by their Pacific adventure, the two men were ready to increase the dosage level.
“Shall we try for a terminal case or two?” Bassett queried.
“I think we should get some terminal cases if possible,” Langham responded.
But for unknown reasons, Nelson turned out to be the last patient injected with plutonium. The following month Bassett began an experiment in which enriched isotopes of uranium were injected into six people with good kidney function. The uranium injections were apparently part of the larger study that had been planned by the Manhattan Project after the war and their function was to find the minimum dose that would produce detectable kidney damage. Thousands of people were working with uranium in Oak Ridge, and the bomb doctors were eager to find out more about both its radioactive and chemical toxicity.
While the uranium injections were under way, Langham kept nagging Samuel Bassett to collect more urine and stool samples from plutonium-injected patients whenever they were readmitted to the hospital. Additional samples were obtained from hemophiliac William Purcell when he returned to the hospital in early January of 1946 for bleeding of the intestinal tract. Samples were also collected from John Mousso, the East Rochester resident, whenever he was readmitted. Eda Schultz Charlton, a lonely, depressed widow, turned out to be one of their most fruitful subjects.