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Human experimentation: Minorities and prisoners targeted

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Environmental Racism and Nuclear Development

(March 28, 1993) Dwayne Sexton was three years old in 1965. That was the year he became part of a US government experiment to find the parameters of the radiation sickness syndrome, ie, precisely how large a dose it would take to cause a person to lose his or her appetite, get nauseous and vomit. His parents were told the experimental treatments Dwayne would receive at the Institute of Nuclear Studies in Oak Ridge, Tennessee would kill their son's leukemia cells. But three years later, a month after his last treatment, Dwayne was dead.

Ayn Lowry

At least 89 cancer patients, including Dwayne Sexton, were systematically exposed to large doses of radiation at the Institute between 1960 and 1974. An 18-month investigation by Mother Jones magazine, published in 1981, says that it appears that the radiation treatments began as a legitimate attempt to improve cancer therapy techniques. So what happened?

Beginning in the 1960's, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) urgently needed data on human sensitivity to radiation for the US space program. One question that especially concerned them was at what point would nausea and vomiting caused by radiation sickness set in? To an astronaut unable to remove an oxygen mask, this could prove vital. The cancer patients who came through the doors of the Oak Ridge Institute were to become the human guinea pigs that provided that information.

NASA was also interested in finding how much radiation caused sterili-zation and how long an astronaut would remain sterile after exposure. For some reason, so was the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

Between 1963 and 1973, the AEC conducted experiments on 131 state prisoners from Washington and Oregon by irradiating their testicles. There was clearly no therapeutic benefit that could be remotely linked to such a project. The inmates who participated were paid monthly sums for volunteering to receive anywhere from eight to 600 rads of x-ray radiation. James Daughterty, one of them, said he received "$5 a month for the program, $25 for every biopsy, and $75 for the vasectomy at the termination of the program. It meant an awful lot at the time. I had no smoking, none of the little necessities that you have to have. I had no income of any kind....You hate to be without toothpaste or anything."

The US Department of Defense (DOD) was also interested in the effects of ionizing radiation on humans. Their main concern was finding out how troops would function under nuclear attack. The Oak Ridge study was not the only place they had to look for the answers. Between 1960 and 1971 the DOD financed experiments performed at the University of Cincinnati by a team under the direction of Dr. Eugene L. Saenger. Saenger exposed poor, terminally ill cancer patients to radiation at levels comparable to what could be expected to be found on a nuclear battlefield. Of the 87 people who took part in the experiments, 84 were charity patients, 61 were black, and all had an average schooling of five years.

Some patients received up to 250 rads of radiation -- a dose at which more than 20% of them would be expected to die of infections resulting from a weakened immune system. In an early report, Saenger's team stated that all the patients were in "relatively good health". None were in the final stages of their disease. Nevertheless, of the first 40 patients receiving "treatment", nine died within 38 days. Within 60 days, 25 of them had died.


When Jessica Mitford wrote her prison expose, Kind and Unusual Punishment, in 1971, a University of California scientist said to her:

If the researchers really believe these experiments are safe for humans, why do they go to prisons for subjects? Why don't they try them out in their laboratories on students or 'free-world' volunteers?...They make a clear distinction between people they think of as social equals or colleagues and men behind bars whom they regard as less than human.

Nazi experimenters had the same attitude towards Jews, Gypsies, Poles and others. In his book,The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg describes how the Nazis sterilized Jews with X-rays in order to find out the same scientific information the AEC was seeking. The purposes of these experiments were very different: the Nazis were looking for ways to sterilize people in order to "purify" the Aryan race, whereas the AEC wanted to find out what would happen to astronauts and workers who received high doses of radiation to their reproductive organs. But the basic violation of human rights by wilfully subjecting a human being to deleterious exposures of ionizing radiation for purposes other than therapy are the same.

Feb. 24, 1981 Memo from Bob Alvarez, Environmental Policy Institute, to Karen Wilson, Dir., National Committee for Radiation Victims.

According to authors Joel Griffiths and Richard Ballentine, in their book Silent Slaughter, during the first five years of the project, no consent forms were used, and reports sent to the Pentagon say that the patients were not forewarned of the after-effects. "There is no discussion of possible subjective reactions resulting from treatment....Further, other physicians, nurses, technicians and ward personnel are instructed not to discuss post-irradiation symptoms or reactions with the patient." Consent forms were required in the later years, but the University of Cincinnati Faculty Committee that investigated Saenger's project in 1971 said that none of the forms properly stated the real risk to patients, which is, said the committee's report, "the risk of death from bone marrow failure within 40 days". That investigation resulted in the project finally being shut down.

Saenger's project produced about 900 pages of reports for the US Depart-ment of Defense. The university medical center received more than $850,000. From the point of view of the DOD, the information was worth the money, and, one assumes, the risk to the patients. It was certainly important enough to be circulated to dozens of military officials, weapons makers, and government weapons contractors. It was not, as Bob Alvarez, formerly of the Washington-based Environmental Policy Institute, pointed out in a 1981 memorandum, circulated to open scientific literature.

Saenger to this day maintains that the patients received the radiation for medical reasons. The fact that the research could be used by the Department of Defense, he says, was just an added benefit. In defense of his research he states: "The most important field of investigation today is that of attempting to understand and mitigate the possible effects of nuclear warfare upon human beings. I'm a person who takes the defense of our country very seriously. I think it is important to find out the kind of things we are learning in this study."

By 1972, the year after Saenger's project had been brought to an end, the furor surrounding him had died down. Today, at least in official circles, Saenger is considered to be a respected member of the "radiation protection community". He has received tributes for his work from various places, including the US National Academy of Sciences. But there are still those who have not forgotten and there is a move now to try to get the US Congress to review the whole affair and Saenger's role in it.


  • "Informed Consent" by Howard L. Rosenberg, Mother Jones (US), Sept./Oct. 1981, pp.31-44
  • Memorandum from Bob Alvarez Environmental Policy Institute, to Karen Wilson, Dir. National Committee for Radiation Victims, 14 Feb. 1981
  • "Investigator of Tragedy Overdosed Poor Patients", by Dave Davis, The Plain Dealer, 15 Dec. 1992

Contacts: Kitty Tucker, Health & Energy Institute, 615 Kennebec Ave., Takoma Park MD 20912.