About a dozen years ago, physicist Albert Wattenberg was poking about in the Chicago branch of the National Archives. He was looking for artifacts used by Enrico Fermi and his team of nuclear physicists in achieving the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction in the squash court under the University of Chicago's football stadium in December 1942.
Wattenberg had been on Fermi's team. Now, more than 50 years later, he reached into a box and picked up an 8-inch metal rod. Its heft surprised him. "There's only one metal that heavy," he thought. It was uranium. Radioactive uranium.
Wattenberg's discovery led to an examination of other documents and artifacts in the archives. Hundreds of laboratory notebooks and papers dating from the early days of nuclear research turned out to be contaminated with radioactivity.
The early 1940s were a careless time in nuclear physics. Scientists were heady with the excitement of discovery. The dangers of radiation were not as well understood as they are today, and safety sometimes went by the board. Many researchers and workers were accidentally contaminated. Research on the physiological effects of radiation was a medical necessity.
Some medical experiments were entirely proper and useful. Others raise troubling questions of ethical responsibility. In 1945-47, eighteen supposedly terminally-ill hospital patients were injected with high doses of plutonium to learn whether the body absorbed it, without informed consent of the patients or their families. About the same time, six hospital patients were injected with uranium salts to determine the dose that produced injury to the kidneys; again, without informed consent. More than a hundred prison inmates had testicles exposed to x-rays to determine the effect of radiation on sperm production. Eleven comatose brain cancer patients were injected with uranium to learn whether it is absorbed by brain tumors. In other medical experiments, small and probably harmless levels of radiation were used as "tracers" on populations that included infants, retarded children, blacks, and women, often without informed consent. All this in addition to the deliberate exposure of soldiers to detonations of nuclear weapons.
In retrospect, it is easy to make judgments about the inappropriateness of these experiments. At the time, the ethical issues were presumably less clear, national security seemed paramount, and safety rules were lax by present standards (Can you imagine an experimental reactor in the heart of Chicago today?). In their zeal to discover, the nuclear scientists sometimes risked the health and lives of themselves and others, including the helpless, the incarcerated, and the terminally ill. In their enthusiasm to discover, they left contaminated fingerprints on the pages of history.