Albert Stevens: Radioactive Man

By Mike Devlin on Saturday, November 16, 2013
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“The American, English and French newspapers are spewing out elegant dissertations on the atomic bomb. We can sum it up in a single phrase: mechanized civilization has just achieved the last degree of savagery.” —Albert Camus, Combat

In A Nutshell

During the Manhattan Project, which would lead to the building of the first atomic bombs, researchers became increasingly concerned about the hazards of contact with plutonium. In one of the most horrifying and unethical experiments ever undertaken, 18 people were injected with plutonium without their consent to measure its effects. The most heavily dosed was a man named Albert Stevens, a house painter who received an injection that assaulted his body with 60 times the amount of radiation allowed to current workers every year until his death, over 20 years later.

The Whole Bushel

Today, science has a pretty good handle on the dangers of radiation, but not so long ago, folks were attending atomic bomb parties and painting watch dials with radioluminescent paint. The Manhattan Project brought the fears of radiation’s effects to a head, especially the effects of the newly isolated element, plutonium, which many had become heavily exposed to during experimentation. To that end, they decided to initiate a study to determine exactly how dangerous plutonium was.

The plot was sinister. They would inject varying amounts of plutonium into unwitting patients and gauge its effects. To their credit, they chose people who had been diagnosed with a “terminal” condition who weren’t expected to live regardless of the results. Eighteen people were injected at three different sites, including the University of California Hospital in San Francisco. The first patient to receive the injection in California (dubbed CAL-1) was a house painter in his late fifties named Albert Stevens. He had been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Stevens was injected with two different isotopes of plutonium. He received a monstrous dose, about 0.95 micrograms in all, as he was not expected to live much longer anyway. But when doctors opened him up to perform surgery on his tumor four days later, they found that he was merely suffering from an extremely bad ulcer. Stevens was lied to and led to believe that he’d undergone a miracle recovery and was then studied. His urine and stool samples were carefully monitored. In the course of a year, he would absorb 60 times the amount of radiation that workers are now allowed to take annually. Stevens would go on to live more than 20 years, his blood filled with plutonium. He eventually succumbed to heart disease at the ripe age of 79. Some of the other 18 patients weren’t so lucky, but it is believed all of them died from pre-existing conditions and not the megadoses of radiation they’d been dealt.

Show Me The Proof

The Human Plutonium Injection Experiments (pdf)
The Plutonium Files
Doctors of death