Since 1951, the United States government has been experimenting, for military purposes, on thousands of human beings, often without their knowledge or consent. These experiments include:

October, 1951: A combat battalion team of one thousand enlisted men was sent to the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nevada test site, where they were exposed, in open trenches, to the explosion of a nuclear bomb dropped from a plane seven miles away. Their behavior and psychological reactions before, during, and after the test were observed by 4,000 high ranking officers from all branches of the military services. According to the Department of Defense, no records were kept on the physical condition of the exposed troops.

May, 1952: Seven hundred soldiers of an armored infantry group were sent to the Nevada test site where they were exposed, in open trenches, to a nuclear bomb exploded from a tower four miles away. As always happens in such explosions, the tower disintegrated into radioactive fallout. No records were kept on the physical condition of the group.

Spring, 1953: Five hundred enlisted men were sent to the Nevada test site where they were exposed, in open trenches, at a distance of approximately two and a half miles, to four separate nuclear bomb explosions, of which at least two were detonated on towers, creating fallout. No records were kept on the physical condition of the men.

Spring, 1953: At least eight military officer volunteers were exposed, at a distance of just over a mile, to three nuclear bomb explosions, including two tower shots. These officers were the closest any men have been to ground zero during a nuclear explosion. The Defense Department refuses to divulge the names of the officers or their present physical condition.

1955-1958: During these years, an unknown number of troops were sent to the Nevada test site for use in maneuvers with nuclear weapons. The group included at least one battalion of soldiers who were marched across the desert and one group of marines. The DOD claims it does not have files on either the number of troops or the kinds of maneuvers in which they participated.

1960-1971: At Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, military personnel and veterans undergoing radiation treatment for cancers of various kinds have been given psychological tests without being told that the experiments are for the Defense Department.

At the Medical College of Virginia, patients scheduled to have an eye removed have been asked if the eye could be exposed to a very high intensity light a few days before the removal. If they consent, the retina is burned in a number of places and in some cases, at least, the eye is blinded. It is not known whether the patients are aware that the Department of Defense is sponsoring these experiments.

At Cincinnati General Hospital, which is operated by the University of Cincinnati Medical School, poor cancer patients from the clinic have been given experimental whole body radiation treatments without being told that the Department of Defense is paying for the experiments. The DOD, in return for its investment, receives data about the effects of this treatment on the patients.

The University of Cincinnati experiments will be debated bitterly during the next few weeks when Senator Edward Kennedy’s Subcommittee on Health holds hearings about the experiments in Washington and Cincinnati. These experiments began in 1960 when the DOD gave a grant to Dr. Eugene Saenger of the University of Cincinnati Medical School, who runs the program. Since then eighty-seven patients suffering from what is judged to be terminal cancer have been irradiated with up to 250 rads of whole body radiation. The patients have been told that the treatments, which can cause pain and nausea, may alleviate pain and lengthen their lives.

The Senate subcommittee hearings will probably raise questions not only about the failure of the scientists to disclose the sponsors of the experiments but also whether any serious medical justification exists for them. Many distinguished scientists and physicians disapprove of using whole body radiation in such cases, insisting it may bring death more quickly and that the certain risks far outweigh the possible benefits.

Similar charges about Dr. Saenger’s experiments on humans have just been made by the Junior Faculty Association of the University of Cincinnati in a report charging that the primary purpose of the experiments was not to help patients but “to study radiation injury for the DOD.” The report approved by the association concluded that the radiation treatments were “a major cause of death for the patients.” However, a professional organization of Dr. Saenger’s fellow radiologists issued a report exonerating him of all such charges. But the argument over the University of Cincinnati’s experiments on human beings should not obscure the most important fact about them: they are only one small part of a Pentagon research program that has been carried on since the advent of nuclear weapons.


Those weapons present military planners with new and extraordinary problems: soldiers exposed to doses of radiation that are not immediately lethal may suffer from subsequent effects that can impair their capacity for combat. How soon after a soldier receives 250 rads from the detonation of a nuclear weapon will he begin to vomit so badly that he cannot fire his rifle? What happens to a troop commander, psychologically, after a nuclear weapon has been exploded? Will he suffer guilt? Is his memory affected if he is exposed, by accident, to radiation? Does he become disoriented? Will the military personnel under him be so frightened that they cannot kill the enemy? To answer such questions, the Pentagon has recruited scientists who specialize in military research, financed with millions of dollars from the DOD.

Until the treaty banning above-ground nuclear testing was signed in 1963, the Defense Department was able to conduct a great many tests on men, animals, and material under conditions comparable to actual nuclear warfare. Through the Atomic Energy Commission’s tests of nuclear weapons in the Pacific and in Nevada the Pentagon was able to study how military personnel would react during nuclear combat.

But a combination of the ban on aboveground tests and the difficulty of experimenting with animals on the Nevada desert forced the scientists of the Pentagon to devise new methods for carrying out their studies. In the case of animals, the solution was to build a laboratory where, according to Colonel Ed Huycke, a Pentagon spokesman, “animals could be controlled in a proper environment and where you could use the animals at the right time.” The Armed Forces Radiobiological Institute, tucked away on a hillside on the extensive grounds of the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, just across the road from the National Institute of Mental Health, now provides that “environment.”

AFRI, as the lab is called, is directed now by Captain Myron Varon, an energetic Navy doctor whose bubbling pride in the laboratory is continuously evident as he takes visitors on a tour of the facility on which the DOD spends four million dollars a year. And AFRI does look like a nice place to work if you’re interested in that kind of work.

A wide variety of tests take place in the institute’s laboratories which possess all the latest equipment, including a cobalt reactor. The function of the lab is to train animals to carry out complicated problems before they are exposed to various radiation doses. Their behavior before dying is then photographed by television cameras and analyzed by delicate instruments.

In one lab at AFRI, a young veterinary surgeon bends intently over a white rat, a scalpel in his hand, as he cuts into the rat’s body to divert its pancreatic duct from its intestines, thus enabling the scientists to check the effects of radiation from doses given later to the rat. In another, rats held in plastic cages with just their heads emerging are being prepared to receive lethal doses of radiation. On another floor, sad-eyed beagles are given mild electric shocks to train them to perform complicated tasks; after their training is finished, they, too, will be irradiated and their behavior studied before they die. Monkeys in cages run on treadmills, stopping every few minutes to press the buttons as they’ve been trained to do, sometimes screaming at those who are watching them.

Much of the equipment used at AFRI is designed and built in the lab: one of its technical successes was the construction of a guillotine apparatus in which an animal is placed while undergoing dosages of radiation so heavy that after the animal dies, the room is too radioactive to be entered immediately. But since the scientists need to know the precise details of the animals’ deaths, the guillotine severs the head at the moment of death and the head then drops into a container holding a chemical solution which preserves the head exactly as it was at the instant the animal was killed.

But even though the work done at AFRI is meticulous, it is not adequate for the Pentagon because, according to Colonel Huycke, “in many cases, especially those involving the mind, it’s very difficult to extrapolate from animals to man.”

That’s where the experiments on humans come in. Thus, the program of burning eyes was started at the Virginia Medical College because previous experiments with animals did not provide enough information about what happens to the eyes of pilots who have dropped tactical nuclear bombs from planes flying low.

Initially, the military scientists put rabbits into cockpits and simulated the flash of a weapon, but the rabbits refused to cooperate and blinked their eyes when the explosion took place. The scientists then sewed the rabbits’ eyes open, preventing them from blinking. They successfully blinded them only to discover that the eyes of rabbits aren’t comparable to those of men. Now the doctors at the Virginia Medical College are being supported by the DOD, and their technique has yielded much more usable data.


The Defense Department spent more than a half million dollars of research money on Dr. Saenger’s experiments at the University of Cincinnati since 1960, because exposing animals and rodents to whole body radiation, as is done at the Armed Forces Radiobiological Institute in Bethesda, does not provide enough data about humans: Dr. Saenger and his staff have also been giving psychological tests to their clinic patients to determine, in Colonel Huycke’s words, “if the patient’s mind is changed or altered by the radiation….”

In the DOD’s view, the experiments on humans are well worth the money. The DOD makes no attempt to disguise its interest in the experiments. Referring to Dr. Saenger’s work, Colonel Huycke says bluntly, “The Defense Nuclear Agency does not have the mission to try to treat, diagnose, or cure cancer. This is for the civilian agencies, the medical schools, the National Institute of Health. However, we do go to the doctors doing this kind of work and see if our small program can fit into this without inconveniencing or harming the patient.”

What kind of people are these scientists working for the Pentagon? How do they justify such research?

Some of them, like Colonel Huycke or Captain Varon, are employees of the Pentagon, career officers who use their professional skills on behalf of the military services. They see their role in the simplest terms possible: “As a Naval officer,” states Captain Varon, “and as a physician, my prime function is still to return as many men to as many guns as soon as possible.”

It’s no problem, then, for Captain Varon to justify what he does. But for Dr. Saenger, it is not quite so simple; he is not a career military officer, but a distinguished scientist, a former president of the American Radiology Society, and a chief spokesman for the radiologists.

Dr. Saenger is a perfect example of a large number of scientists who worked willingly for their government during World War II and then smoothly continued their activities during the cold war, the Korean War, and the war in Indochina. Other doctors have had doubts about US military policy but Dr. Saenger believes in the American mission and sees himself as a part of it. The possibility of nuclear warfare shattering the world is real to him. He insists that “the support of research on the consequences of nuclear warfare is an absolute must for the safety of people in the United States and the people of the world.”

Dr. Saenger’s chief assistant, Dr. Theodore Silberstein, says, “I laughingly refer to myself as a member of the military complex because of this funding….” And adds, “I really don’t have any hangups about this because any time you look at the scope of what the Army does, you see that it has been protecting its fighting men as well as the unhappy issues of going out to fight somebody. I think that because of the orientation of the Army you’ve got to win your battles and you’ve got to be prepared, but you’ve got to protect your men and give them the best medical care possible and be ready for any eventuality, whether it’s from nuclear conflict, God forbid, or whatever. This is clearly within the domain of the Defense Department and I really don’t have any hangups about having some of my research sponsored by them when I know this is consistent with both their objective and our scientific and humanitarian objectives.”

The political attitude of Dr. Saenger and his staff makes it easier for them to justify not informing their patients that the experimental treatments are paid for by the DOD and that the data gained from them goes almost exclusively to the DOD. (The Junior Faculty Committee of the University of Cincinnati, which issued the report bitterly attacking the work of Dr. Saenger, points out that in the ten years the experiments have been going on, not a single report on them has been issued except to the DOD.)

The procedure of getting patients’ “informed consent” for experimental treatments is spelled out, in great detail, in the federal standards for “Protection of the Individual as a Research Subject” which should cover all government research contracts, including that of Dr. Saenger. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, which sets the standards, states explicitly,

An individual should generally be accepted as a research subject only after he, or his legally authorized guardian or next of kin, has consented to his participation, in the research. Such consent is valid, however, only if the individual is first given a fair explanation of the procedures to be followed, their possible attendant benefits and hazards and discomforts, and the reasons for pursuing the research and its general objectives.

Obviously, the thousands of soldiers and marines were never asked their permission to be used as human guinea pigs; this notion would be ridiculous to the military scientists. Dr. Saenger’s team gets permission from patients before starting experiments; but he and his staff offer a number of reasons for not telling their patients that the nausea and vomiting which they endure after the treatments are for the benefit of the DOD. I asked Dr. Saenger if he informed his patients that the Department of Defense was sponsoring the experiments. He answered, “No.” To him, it’s evidently not necessary to get “informed consent” because “the entire protocol that we use, including all of the various tests which we carry out, have been reviewed by a human experimentation, human research committee of the College of Medicine of the University of Cincinnati, and the entire protocol has been approved by them.”

Indeed, Dr. Saenger has written that “informed consent” is a “visionary goal” and that “the sole responsibility for the protection of the subject, whether volunteer or patient, lies just where it should—with the physician (one or several). It is the responsibility of the investigator to evaluate benefits vs. risks and all other concerns which might be raised by the experiment.”

Caroline Winsheild, who administers the psychological tests to the clinic patients, insists that “you could talk until you were blue in the face to some of these people and what you are referring to as informed consent would not be possible.” When Miss Winsheild mentioned “these people” she was referring to indigent black and white patients, many of whom had little formal education.

Like her colleagues, Miss Winsheild believes in the work she does for the DOD. She points out that the psychological tests she carries out help the Pentagon to discover how long it takes for “dysfunctioning to appear and disappear so that if you know that immediately after being exposed to radiation, let’s say you have forty-five minutes before a person begins not to think clearly, this is something that can be built into how we know we will use fighting men.”

It might seem that there is a parallel to these experiments on clinic patients in the ghastly research done by Nazi doctors on concentration camp inmates. But the parallel is not accurate. Dr. Saenger is not Dr. Mengele; Captain Varon is not an SS officer. Still, it is disturbing, to say the least, that they are blind to the moral issues involved in their manipulation of sick human beings without fully informing them about the reasons why.

I asked Captain Varon whether he would run a biological warfare research laboratory. He replied, “That’s a rough question to hit me with. I’m just a citizen. The President of the United States has made a determination on what the program of biological warfare would be in this country. I’d follow his directions. He’s my Commander in Chief.”

This Issue

March 9, 1972