SEATTLE, Wash. - The Clinton administration and major universities are apologizing for Cold War radiation experiments on humans, but the man behind the largest such experiment in Washington state maintains he did nothing wrong.
Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen used X-rays on the
testicles of 64 prisoners at the Washington State Penitentiary in
Walla Walla during the 1960s to find the dose that would make them
Now, 24 years after the experiments were
stopped, Paulsen defends the tests while conceding they couldn't be
done today. And if Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary wants the names
of Paulsen's subjects, she'll have to get a court
Paulsen, who keeps his prisoner research
files at the Pacific Medical Center in Seattle, isn't relinquishing
the names voluntarily, he said in a recent
That stance puts Paulsen at odds with
the White House, which promises full disclosure of the government's
Cold War experiments - and possible compensation for the people
A tall, 69-year-old physician with
bushy eyebrows and a lengthy résumé of publications on
male fertility, Paulsen is the focus of publicity about the
prisoner experiments for the fourth time.
federal government first revealed the Walla Walla experiments in
1976, six years after they ended. Then-Gov. Dan Evans demanded an
investigation into the experiments, but none was conducted.
Paulsen's work made the news again briefly in 1984 and 1986, when
congressional committees listed it among experiments funded by the
Atomic Energy Commission.
But this time, the
scrutiny isn't fading. Paulsen's prisoner experiments were born in
a flash of blue light at Hanford, Wash., the federal complex that
produced plutonium for the nation's first atomic bomb during the
early 1940s. On April 7, 1962, four men were working near a
plutonium solution when the most dreaded type of nuclear accident
happened - a nuclear criticality.
nuclear material comes together to go critical, the resulting flash
- a flux of neutrons and gamma rays - can deliver a lethal dose in
a fraction of a second.
The Hanford workers were
lucky. They escaped, but were exposed to radiation doses ranging
from 1.43 to 110 rems. Today's safety limit for nuclear workers is
5 rems a year.
Hanford officials asked Paulsen,
then an assistant professor and male fertility expert at the
University of Washington Medical School, to examine the men and
answer their most urgent questions: Would the accident make them
sterile or give them cancer?
"I couldn't really
answer them. There was very little in the scientific literature,"
Paulsen recalled. General Electric Co. officials who ran Hanford
for the government asked him to look for an
They encouraged Paulsen to apply for a
federal research grant through the university to experiment on
prisoners in nearby Walla Walla.
considered ideal subjects because it would be easy to do follow-up
studies. "They were a population that wasn't going anywhere,"
His Hanford contacts told Paulsen
what type of X-ray machine he would need. "I didn't know anything
about radiation at the time."
The project was
approved in 1963 after AEC's high-level Division of Biology and
Medicine decided it would provide valuable information. The Cuban
Missile Crisis and other Cold War tensions had increased fears of
nuclear war, and the military was demanding answers about
radiation's effects on soldiers and
An academic rivalry led to a second
set of prisoner experiments in Oregon. Soon after Paulsen's project
was approved, his former professor, Dr. Carl Heller of Seattle's
Pacific Northwest Research Foundation, applied for a similar grant
using prisoners at the Oregon State Penitentiary in
"There was some scientific
competitiveness. When I was invited over to see those men at
Hanford, he didn't like that," Paulsen said.
two experiments cost $1.5 million.
volunteers, Paulsen tacked notices about the experiments on the
prison bulletin board. He also spoke to the inmates at an
Many volunteered, and 64 were selected
after interviews and physical examinations. Participants were paid
$5 to $10 a month.
The men signed consent forms,
but Paulsen admits they were "very sketchy compared to nowadays.
The first ones indicated that I had discussed the risks with them.
Later on, more of what I told them in the assembly was put on
paper. The consent form expanded."
goal was to determine the dose at which the men would lose their
fertility, and then to track their recovery.
men lay down, exposing their testicles to the machine mounted over
them. Their genitals were placed on a small bag of sugar because
the granules prevented radiation from being deflected to damage
The doses they received ranged from
7 to 380 rems - very high compared to a diagnostic X-ray, which
ranges from .01 to 1 rem.
At 15 rems, some sperm
were killed. At 50 rems, all sperm died. At 380 rems - which only
two of the men received - it took as long as 500 days for fertility
"This was longer than it would take
for a dog to recover. We discovered men were very sensitive to
short-term sterility," Paulsen said.
The men were
examined for up to six years to measure changes in their hormones
and sperm. All were encouraged to have vasectomies to prevent the
possibility of defective offspring, but eight refused, Paulsen
The experiment's findings were later
applied to other industrial accidents.
it led to some valuable information," Paulsen said. "But you could
also argue, as many do, that the end doesn't justify the means."
The Walla Walla experiments ended after a
university-wide human experiments committee denied Paulsen
permission to conduct a second set of experiments in 1969. That
committee didn't exist when the first tests began in
The committee was uneasy with Paulsen's new
proposal to bombard prisoners with neutron radiation, said George
Farwell, a nuclear physicist who was the university's vice
president for research in 1969. The 1962 Hanford accident had
exposed the four workers to both X-rays and
"The committee declined Paulsen's
proposal. The feeling was, there were very serious risks. Neutron
radiation is no joke; you can die from it," Farwell
"There was concern that the risks
outweighed the scientific benefits."
McDermott, chairman of UW's physics department, was on the
committee that reviewed Paulsen's proposal. Committee members
debated whether prisoners were true volunteers, McDermott
"The question was, could there really
be any truly informed consent, or were these people just so bored
that they'd take any opportunity?"
already a consensus in the late "60s that these experiments really
weren't justifiable," McDermott said.
support for the experiments also was eroding.
got calls from Olympia that they didn't want me to do any more
(experiments), and I said fine," Paulsen
But ending the experiments ended the
follow-up. Prison officials told Paulsen he was no longer
The last X-rays were administered in
1968. The follow-ups ceased in 1970.
intended long-term follow-up through annual medical exams to ensure
the men didn't develop tumors or other problems, but it never
"I couldn't sneak into the
penitentiary," Paulsen said.
The inmates' medical
charts are still at the prison with notations about the amount of
radiation they received.
In his last meeting with
the inmates nearly two decades ago, Paulsen promised to be
available for any medical problems that might arise. Over the
years, three have contacted him. One wanted his vasectomy reversed;
the procedure was unsuccessful.
Another, still an
inmate, complained his testicles "glowed in the dark," Paulsen
said. The man turned out to have been part of a control group that
was not irradiated, he said.
A third complained
of swollen and painful testes, but did not allow Paulsen to do
further follow-ups after an initial, inconclusive
Paulsen does not know how many of
his subjects remain in prison, and how many have been set free. "I
have lost track of them. The door was closed to me."
* Karen Dorn
Karen Dorn Steele
reports for the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review. She is working on
a book about secrecy and the Hanford Nuclear