Albert Stevens: Radioactive Man

“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

  • Hillyard

    Science without ethics is a true horror.

    • Exiled Phoenix

      Whom decides what is ethical? It is after all a creation of the human species…

      • Hillyard

        Ethics may be a creation of the human species, but within all of us that aren’t suffering from some kind of insanity there is that voice that says ‘this isn’t right.’ An ethical person will listen to that voice, others will tell themselves that the end, or the knowledge gained, justifies the means. They’re wrong.

        • Exiled Phoenix

          The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
          We have used knowledge that was aquired by the nazis to further our medical understanding. Should we destroy that knowledge and forfeit the many that
          have survived?
          Things once they are part of history can be analyzed and people can claim them as unethical. We do not however willingly give up the knowledge that was learned from those unethical experiments.
          So what is ethics when it applies to the past? Nothing more than a judgement.

          • Hillyard

            Please sir re-adjust your scales. The needs of the many aren’t as heavy as you think.
            Most of the ‘knowledge’ from the Nazi experiments has been banned by governments that aren’t as crazy as the Nazis. The experiments were of little use as they did not have the control group used by all actual researchers, and were nothing but torture and murder in ‘the name of science.’ Furthermore the terrible physical condition of the people being ‘experimented’ (tortured) upon just nullifies any usefulness of the data collected.
            I’ve read a number of your comments, you don’t seem to be a troll or a basic asshat, so I’m wondering what prompts you to believe that medical experiments, however unethical are OK?
            For myself, if a doctor were to tell me that to save my life he needed to conduct experiments upon unknowing/unwilling participants my response could only be: Just let me die then.

      • WhiteExodus

        You know instead of just giving them small amounts of plutonium, why not dump all 18 patients into a vat of plutonium, you know see if their gonna get any powers or not.

  • Sewo

    You are not allowed to kill yourself, to be euthanized the humane way may never happen. But the government may kill you when they see fit for whatever reason. SO MUCH HYPOCRISY I-I-I…I CANN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE

  • Efamore


  • Efamore

    Seems like there should be more to this story. Doesn’t sound complete.

  • Sweet-Sativa

    Damn that’s messed up. I hate using animals for experimentation for any reason, but if scientists truly wanted to know the effects of radiation couldn’t they have just used monkeys or rats? Why use your fellow human even sick ones as guinea pigs?

    • Ian Moone

      Or they could have gotten consent from the people who they were experimenting on.

  • Hadeskabir

    I thought this was about a man that after being subject to a high dose of radiation would gain super-powers.

  • JRHatt

    Up and at them!

  • Nomsheep

    Surely it would have been easier to pay people.