Albion Monitor /News

Berkeley Performed Most Radiation Tests

by Jeff Elliott

It was not unusual to perform these experiments without the patient's knowledge and consent

Newly-released documents show that UC/Berkeley performed the most human radiation experiments of any laboratory funded by the Energy Department. Of the 425 known studies, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory conducted 93, almost all upon Bay Area residents.

Most tests were performed in the early 1950's, although some began as early as 1936. According to the Department of Energy's Office of Human Radiation Experiments, the last Berkeley study was in the 1980's.

In many of these studies, it is unclear if the patients granted permission or even knew they were part of a radiation study. Bay Area research including experiments upon pregnant women, children, mental patients, and prison inmates.

A 1946 memo declassified earlier this year suggests that it was not unusual to perform these experiments without the patient's knowledge and consent. This memo from an administrator at one of the national atomic research labs noted, "These doctors state that the injections would probably be made without the knowledge of the patient, and that the physicians assumed full responsibility...Such injections were not divergent from the normal experimental method in the hospital and the patient signed no release."

Besides County and University hospitals, Berkeley research was conducted at Veterans Hospitals, San Quentin prison, the psychiatric Langley Porter Clinic in San Francisco, and Laguna Honda Home, described as "a hospital for destitute patients."

Some studies were of questionable worth, or of military benefit only

While this Cold War research at Berkeley and other institutions did much to advance scientific understanding of radiation for medical use, some studies were of questionable worth, or of military benefit only. The 93 declassified studies include:

  • Injecting the radioisotope phosphorus-32 into pregnant women, before and after delivery.

  • An experiment on patients in mental hospitals to determine if their thyroid function was normal. Among the subjects were patients with schizophrenia, manic-depression, mixed psychoneurosis, and anorexia nervosa.

  • Total body X-ray irradiation of patients to determine occupational risk for workers on the WWII Manhattan Project.

  • Irradiating healthy pituitary glands of cancer patients at Laguna Honda Home to see if reducing hormones might benefit treatment. Any benefits were lost because follow-up results were apparently not reported.

  • Using carbon-14 to determine which of two different aspirin products was absorbed faster by the body. The study found no difference in the rate of the two products. The half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 years.

  • Estimates of the number of patients involved have risen dramatically

    The UC/Berkeley Radiation Laboratory was established in 1936 by Ernest Lawrence, who served as Laboratory Director until his death in 1958. As Director, established a method of research known as "big science." During WWII, the lab was deeply involved with the war effort and produced the first uranium-235 for use in atomic bombs.

    Biomedical researchers used the Laboratory's new equipment (such as particle beam accelerators and more powerful x-ray tubes) and radioactive isotopes to do experimental work on animals and people. The work on people centered on trial therapies for various medical conditions, especially cancer. Much of this medical treatment took place under the auspices of institutions such as UC hospital and medical schools in San Francisco.

    Since President Clinton established the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments in March 1994, the Department of Energy has begun an intensive effort to identify and catalog relevant historical documents from DOE's 3.2 million cubic feet of records at Berkeley and elsewhere.

    Estimates of the number of patients involved during these Cold War tests have risen dramatically. In February of this year, 9,000 men, women, and children were thought to have been test subjects. Now the government believes the nationwide total is closer to 16,000. These figures do not include research by the military, CIA, or other agencies known to have conducted their own experiments.

    Copies of all reports may be found on the Internet at the Energy Department's Office of Human Radiation Experiments web site.

    Albion Monitor September 2, 1995 (

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