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Ethics and Human Radiation Experiments

GOURLEY: (presents a document) This is from the Joint Committee, because we were talking about Dr. Batzel. It's a letter that you wrote commenting on some of the things that were being said. The criticism of you was that the AEC staff said that your interpretations were not based on experimental work of your own.
GOFMAN: That's when I told them, "Look, you want me to go out and bomb my own Hiroshima?"
GOURLEY: Exactly.
GOFMAN: Can you imagine somebody saying in a field like the health effects of radiation, where it all depends on what's happening out there, it should be your work?
GOURLEY: Yes, after you said, "Go bomb your Hiroshima," you said, "Go and irradiate children, infants in utero and TB patients." Now, in light of some of the things that came out about the radioactive oatmeal [given to] the kids and all this other stuff was going on-
GOFMAN: Yes. I consider the things, like the injections of plutonium, immoral. You'll get a copy [of that videotape]. I don't have an extra copy. I can show it to you today if you want to see it. I'll see that you get a copy of the thing I did on "60 Minutes Australia." It was a matter of very, very deep personal significance.

The 18 people who got the plutonium were chosen because they were believed not [to] have a long life expectancy. I have for a long time, as a physician, known that the dumbest thing that a doctor can do is to decide the life expectancy of someone else. The Eileen Welsome story shows you that some of those people lived 25 years. It was a personal experience which is on that tape, and I'll tell it to you briefly.

Helen [(my wife)] was an intern in pediatrics at the time. This young boy was brought over from Australia to become one of the 18. Any child that was brought into UC Hospital had to go through the pediatrics admission service. Helen worked this child up on his admission physical. She didn't remember it, but they showed it to me and some of the documents that came out from Hazel's [(DOE Secretary O'Leary's)] office. I was working with the "60 Minutes Australia" group.

That was 1946 when this child was here. I must have been marching around the halls when that kid was in that hospital, because I was in my senior clerkship and getting ready to start my internship.

In a year after that child was here at UC, my son was born. Helen didn't do well after the delivery. He was a little premature and he came along okay. She got sick; it just was a low-grade fever and nothing else showing. Finally, after a couple of months, she had some tenderness on one side of the abdomen. I went back in to see her ob/gyn [physician], Dr. Overstreet, [who] thought she ought to be operated on; she might have an ovarian abscess. He did operate on her. She had an ovarian abscess and they spilled some of the abscess material.

When she got out of surgery, her temperature skyrocketed. She was very sick. That was in 1947. She was in the hospital and they analyzed the organisms that came out of the ovarian abscess. It turned out it was a called bacteroides funduliformis; it's an organism that's common in us; almost never pathogenetic. It's in the bowel, almost never hurts anybody [unless] you get an infection with it.

Professor Kerr, the one I told you later criticized me for doing things without getting permission, was brought into her case because she was going downhill very rapidly. He called Chester Keefer, who had been the expert during World War II on U.S. soldiers with infectious diseases. He told him about it and [asked] what we should do. He said, "Penicillin; 500,000 units is [the] only thing we know. They're 95 to 98 percent fatal." She had already had the 500,000 units of penicillin and it didn't work.

Henry Brainerd, [the] infectious disease head man, had no idea-I had no idea, just watching [her] going downhill. She had gone down to about 80 pounds, her temperature was about 40[ C; 104 F] and it was just a matter of time. She was an ideal candidate for a plutonium injection. Here is a woman who is about to die. [Has] maybe a couple of weeks [to] live. You can get all your data. In that year, one of the 18 was injected in that hospital. This was an ideal candidate for plutonium injections; a patient with a limited life expectancy.
GOURLEY: Did you know of the plutonium injections at the time?
GOFMAN: No, I had no idea. But I'm just telling you that.
GOFMAN: I have a moral principle on this thing. We were just watching her die. Jack Frenkel was a resident in Pathology. He recently retired from [the University of] Kansas. He was a Pathology professor, came up to me and said, "I checked Helen's organism in the lab: 500,000 units of penicillin won't touch her." He said, "5 million might."

Now you have to understand in those days, a million units of penicillin was regarded as astronomical. [He said he thought] 5 million might help. We quickly went to Henry Brainerd and Professor Kerr and [told them about] this testing done on her organism. They both agreed, "Let's get the 5 million units." Jack said that might [not] touch her. I said, "What about 10 million?' and they agreed to that. Nobody [received] 5 million in that hospital. I don't think anybody had had a million. But Professor Kerr and Henry Brainerd agreed that Helen ought to be tried on 10 million units a day.

I promptly went down to [the] pharmacy and tried to arrange [it]. They said 10 million units a day, we don't have 10 million units in the hospital! That was a little discouraging. Professor Kerr, to his everlasting credit, called Dr. Robert Cutter, [who] was the head of Cutter Lab, one of the big manufacturers of penicillin. Dr. Robert Cutter gave us a gift of 100 million units of penicillin: 100 million, enough for 10 days. I went over to Berkeley to pick it up. We came back.

The penicillin wasn't that pure in those days. To get 10 million units into [a single injection] you had to combine a lot of [vials] into it; it was a fairly big mass. I finally put some procaine in it to try to deaden the pain. Helen didn't have much buttocks left to put an injection in[to]; [her] temperature was about 40 degrees [Celcius]; she was just out of it, sick. Gave her the first 10 million units that day. By the next morning, her temperature was near normal. By the tenth day, she went home. She's better. She didn't die from the bacteroides. One guy, Jack Frenkel, turned medicine on its head. He took a fatal disease and on his own initiative tried something that nobody suggested, and it worked.
GOURLEY: So it was a human experiment that worked?
GOFMAN: It was a human experiment that worked. There was a guy that said, "Listen, if you're so goddamn smart, don't go playing God and telling people that they don't have much [time] to live and give them plutonium injections when something can turn that around in three days." Maybe they [have] a lifetime to live. In that same period, the one who's daughter was Elmerine, what was his name?
HEFNER: Elmer Allen, Cal-3?
GOFMAN: Cal-2 was the little boy from Australia (Simeon Shaw) and the program was called "The Betrayal of Simeon Shaw." It seems that [Helen] could have been one of [the] people given the injection, because she didn't have any lifespan left. So, it reminded me of how immoral it would be for somebody to give her an injection of plutonium before Jack Frenkel turned things on its head.
GOURLEY: You know the players who were involved with that. You know Joe Hamilton, Dr. Stone, you know Low-Beer, you know probably Dr. Bellamy.
GOFMAN: Bellamy I didn't know, I don't think, but I sure knew all the others.
HEFNER: You weren't there and so this is an unfair question, but how could they do it?
GOFMAN: Well, I think what I said earlier [about] Low-Beer and Stone coming out of an era of 30 years or so, [where] they just didn't think about the hazard of plutonium. They should have thought about it because they knew [about] radon. The idea of putting those people in the positions where they were the favorite children of the era. Automatic checkbook, great prestige, "We're saving the world," "We can't be wrong." You know what I think, Lori.

One of the things you'll see in situations like that is at one level down or two levels down from the top, people almost try to think what they would like to have at the top. Do all these things that they think the bosses would want.

I think maybe they could have thought, "Well, look, we're going to prove that radiation isn't that harmful." There was almost a mantra, "Radiation can't be that harmful, radiation isn't that harmful." They're still singing the mantra today.

Egan O'Connor and I discussed that a great deal. The issue of what it takes for people to live with themselves; we think about that a lot. She believes that if you don't have a rationalization for yourself, that they cannot do these things. They [have] to have a rationalization. I sometimes think that some of them are evil anyway. They don't need a rationalization. But she thinks they do.

Sometimes it's pretty hard to see that rationalization. I don't know, I think that maybe, Joe was just a simple guy. He sure wasn't a malevolent person. Joe Hamilton, just wasn't. Stone, I guess I have to say Stone and Bert Low-Beer really didn't think they were harming anybody. I think they were buying the short-life-expectancy thing. I don't think Louis Hempelmann is malevolent. I didn't know Stafford Warren well. Surely, Shields Warren was not malevolent in character, a very fine man.

I think that overblown idea [about their] importance almost negated having to think: "We couldn't be wrong, we're just doing the things that are needed." I hear of people talking: "It was because of the Cold War." I listened in on one of the [Congressional] hearings where Markey was saying, "Elmerine, you should think of your father as a hero in the Cold War." I groaned when I say this, "What the hell is Markey talking about? The Cold War didn't require any of this stuff." That's baloney, just real baloney. I don't think it required anything. I think it just gave these people a checkbook and they gave them a little wooden block with a rubber piece put on [it] that said "SECRET," and they could just stamp a thing, and the whole world was precluded from seeing what was on your piece of paper. Think of that power! I think people do crazy things when they're obsessed with power.
HEFNER: So the whole rationale that we did it to understand worker safety?
GOFMAN: Lori, let me tell you about worker safety. [Do] you know the story about Eisenbud and the uranium miners?[53]
HEFNER: (nods) About the uranium miners; go ahead and tell me though, please?
GOFMAN: Well, in 1947, the AEC was getting off the ground; Merril Eisenbud was a young health physicist, working in the New York operations office of AEC. He and his boss, a fellow by the name of Wolff, decided to look over the situation in [the] uranium mines in the West. They came out here and found that the mines were not that [safe-not ventilated adequately]. Nobody had informed either the miners or the mine operators of what the probable consequences would be. Now that's 20 years after the dial painters, so we knew what alpha particles could do. It's 10 and 20 years [later]; both a decade of the '20s and '30s where they knew about the European mine workers. So the idea of what alpha particles could do was well known. Merril Eisenbud comes back from the trip and he writes a memo to the AEC saying-
GOURLEY: This was in what year?
GOFMAN: 1947: "If we don't do something about those mines, we're going to have a lung cancer epidemic. It's going to be larger than they had in Europe." Their answer was to move Merril Eisenbud into a different division. The Washington office took over handling it. They never informed the miners nor the mine operators. We did have the lung cancer epidemic. [And you ask if they cared about worker safety?]
HEFNER: We also paid them a differential to make sure they went into the mines.
GOFMAN: Did we? I didn't know about that.
HEFNER: We paid them extra.
GOFMAN: I think that to say that an organization that knowingly was sending some men to their deaths and you can tell me they cared about a worker's safety?
GOURLEY: But now earlier you said, [in] 1945 with the war going on, you would gladly assume that risk for what you did. Now, Eisenbud, his big thing was Project Sunshine,[54] right?
GOFMAN: He may very well have been the big wheel [in Sunshine, I don't know]. He's not an opponent of atomic energy. He probably doesn't like me.
GOURLEY: I was wondering if there was some overlap between his studies on strontium and the fallout and the work done at Livermore?
GOFMAN: Which work at Livermore?
GOURLEY: The Biology and Medicine-
GOFMAN: That I headed? That whole thing on Project Sunshine was like a decade before us.
GOURLEY: So did you review that?
GOFMAN: Yes, we reviewed those things. That was part of the story. It wasn't a big deal, but we did review it. There were no good studies out of Project Sunshine of people being exposed to various levels [for] following the curve of effects. That's what was needed. You had Project Sunshine [that] showed everybody was getting strontium into their teeth and bones, but nobody had a study showing they were being hurt. Hiroshima gives us [a] summary of people [exposed] at various doses and you find a dose response that's positive. That's pretty definitive. Sunshine didn't do that.
HEFNER: That covers it for me. Is there anything you would like to add?
GOFMAN: Well, I gave you those sheets.
HEFNER: We will place them in the office.
GOFMAN: You got the sheets?
HEFNER: We got the sheets and I'll try to get the transcript, the one tape you talked to us about.
GOFMAN: Let's see, there's one that I have. [I] just talked to CNN's video and it has 10 minutes of the interview which lasted three days. They used three minutes, but the hour are the tapes of "60 Minutes Australia." I need to get some more copies, I don't have any [extras]. Well, I'll get a copy, that will be an hour talking about the morality of the plutonium injections and I'll get you a copy. The story of Helen [Gofman] and Jack Frenkel is on that tape. Tapes that are like those, had a lightbulb blow up in the middle of things. Just was strictly uncut, which that is, too. I want to get you a copy of "Irrevy" to wherever you are; you can read about my Nuremberg trial [idea].
GOURLEY: I'd like to get a copy of that.

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