The American government official who directed radiation experiments on human subjects starting in the 1940s was warned soon after the program began that the research would invite public criticism and comparison to Nazi experiments on concentration camp inmates, a private memorandum declassified by the government shows.

In a 1950 memorandum to Shields Warren, a senior official of the Atomic Energy Commission, Joseph G. Hamilton, a top radiation biologist who worked for the agency, warned that the medical experiments might have "a little of the Buchenwald touch." At the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, a number of human experiments were done, including one that killed about 600 people exposed to typhus bacteria.He warned that commission officials "would be subject to considerable criticism" for conducting experiments in which human subjects were exposed to potentially harmful doses of radiation.

The memorandum, declassified in the early 1970s, has been known to a handful of independent investigators interested in the early history of the Atomic Energy Commission. It has been publicly circulated in recent days as government investigators and reporters have examined an extensive experimental program that involved at least 1,000 people in a variety of radiation experiments in the early years of the atomic era. One official said that number could go much higher.

The memo sheds light on what one of the government's leading radiation researchers was thinking as the government prepared to finance and direct the experiments.

This month Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary directed her agency to determine how many studies were conducted, to find participants and their survivors and to investigate the propriety and legality of the research.

As part of the project, which is likely to last for years, O'Leary has set up a toll-free telephone line, 1-800-493-2998. Monday, hundreds of callers swamped the agency with questions about experiments they said might have involved them or family members. Peter Brush, the department's principal deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and health, said the volume of calls was so intense that this week the department would triple the number of specialists answering the telephones from three to nine or 10.

"We've had an unbelievable response to the hotline," Brush said. "It's a much greater volume than we anticipated."

The Boston Globe disclosed Sunday that 19 mentally retarded teenage boys at a state school in Fernald, Mass., were exposed to radioactive iron and calcium in their breakfast cereal. The experiments, from 1946 to 1956, were intended to help researchers understand nutrition and metabolism, the paper said, though consent forms mailed to parents never mentioned that radioactive elements would be involved. It is not known if the subjects were harmed by the test.

The Albuquerque Tribune, which in November published a series of articles on an experiment in which 18 patients were injected with plutonium, reported last week on another study conducted in Memphis. In that research, sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1953 and 1954, seven newborn boys, six of them black, were injected with radioactive iron. Those studies were intended to understand better how the thyroid glands of newborns functioned. Mothers agreed to the research, but some babies were later given up for adoption, according to The Tribune.

The Energy Department conducted a dozen radiation experiments over Utah, New Mexico and Tennessee from 1948 to 1952.

One of the issues the Energy Department is studying is whether any of the radiation experiments violated the 1947 Nuremberg Code, which was established after the Nazi war crimes trials, and is regarded as the universal standard for human experimentation. The code requires full, informed and voluntary consent for all experiments involving human subjects, along with demanding that test subjects be protected "against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death."

"We want to make sure the work was consistent with whatever ethical guidelines existed at the time," Brush said. "Certainly some of the stuff I've read leads one to question whether it could have been consistent with any established ethics of the time."

The Hamilton memorandum suggests that medical researchers associated with the Atomic Energy Commission were aware of their ethical responsibilities. The memorandum, dated Nov. 28, 1950, was addressed to Warren, the director of the division of biology and medicine, the unit of the Atomic Energy Commission that commissioned and oversaw virtually all government research related to radiation after the war.

Hamilton, under contract to the Atomic Energy Commission, summarized the limited knowledge then available about the risks military personnel faced should they be exposed to high levels of radiation, presumably as a result of nuclear war or military exercises involving atomic bombs. Hamilton urged the Atomic Energy Commission to conduct additional research to expose living organisms to intense radiation fields.

View Comments

"For both politic and scientific reasons," he wrote, "I think it would be advantageous to secure what data can be obtained by using large monkeys such as chimpanzees." But Hamilton warned: "If this is to be done in humans, I feel that those concerned in the Atomic Energy Commission would be subject to considerable criticism as admittedly this would have a little of the Buchenwald touch."

The memorandum, made available to The Times by Dr. David S. Egilman, a physician from Rhode Island who teaches at Brown University and has investigated instances of human experimentation by the military and the Atomic Energy Commission. Egilman said the memorandum was a clear indication that the government's own nuclear scientists knew they were working at the very edges of medical ethics. Both Warren and Hamilton are dead.

"Based on their own documents and the history of medical ethics, they knew clearly at the time that the studies were unethical," said Egilman. "They called this work, in effect, Nazi-like. The argument we hear is that these experiments were ethical at the time they were done. It's simply not true."

Brush, said the memorandum would become part of the extensive review of human radiation experimentation called for by Secretary O'Leary.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.