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Plutonium Files collection

Identifier: COU:1290

Scope and Contents

The Plutonium Files Collection is organized into information about Plutonium injection victims, information about the research facilities where human experimentation took place, information regarding military programs and weapons testing, government departments, non governmental organizations, personnel interviews and information, congressional documents, the minutes and other information of a symposium on accountability, the minutes of the meetings of ACHRE, Eileen Welsome’s notes on various subjects, information on Rocky Flats, and massive amounts of personal correspondence addressed to Eileen Welsome.


  • Creation: 1945 - 1999

Conditions Governing Access

Some material in this collection contains personal health information (PHI), such as social security numbers and health records, that is restricted from most use under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) for 50 years after the date of death of individual whose records are included in the collection. This restriction includes but is not limited to reproduction and publication. Advance permission is required to access this material and may require application to and approval from the University of Colorado's Institutional Review Board. This material can be found in Boxes 1-4, 34, 35, some folders from boxes 11 and 13, and box 123.The restricted materials are indicated by the word "RESTRICTED" in their title. Restricted folders from boxes 11 and 13 have been seperated and put in box 123.

In addition, this collection contains or may contain private and personally identifiable information (PPII), including but not limited to PHI. Researchers must sign the University Libraries’ Private and Personally Identifiable Information Agreement in advance of access to collection materials. Contact for more information.

Copyright Statement

The University Libraries may not own the copyright to all materials in this collection. Researchers are responsible for contacting the copyright holder(s) for this material and obtaining permission to publish or broadcast. The University Libraries will not grant permission to publish or broadcast this material and are not responsible for copyright violations resulting from such use.

Conditions Governing Use

Researchers may not make notes, reproductions (including photographs), or other record of any private and personally identifiable information (PPII) located in this collection and may not publish, publicize, or disclose that PPII to any other party for any purpose. Exclusions may apply to researchers who have obtained authorization from the University of Colorado Institutional Review Board to produce human subject research records in de-identified form. All researchers must sign the University Libraries’ Private and Personally Identifiable Information Agreement indicating their understanding of the use restrictions for PPII found in this collection. Contact

Biographical / Historical

Eileen Welsome graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1980 with her Bachelor of Journalism Degree. She worked for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Antonio Light before going to the Albuquerque Tribune in 1987.

She wrote a series of articles on Human Experimentation by the US government in the Cold War for the Tribune in 1994, following nearly a decade of dedicated research on the subject. This series won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. The Plutonium Files was published in 1999, revealing even more about the victims of the Atomic Energy Commission’s experimentation. Reviews below describe her book and research.

In a Massachusetts school, seventy-three disabled children were spoon fed radioactive isotopes along with their morning oatmeal....In an upstate New York hospital, an eighteen-year-old woman, believing she was being treated for a pituitary disorder, was injected with plutonium by Manhattan Project doctors....At a Tennessee prenatal clinic, 829 pregnant women were served "vitamin cocktails"--in truth, drinks containing radioactive iron--as part of their prenatal treatment....

In 1945, the seismic power of atomic energy was already well known to researchers, but the effects of radiation on human beings were not. Fearful that plutonium would cause a cancer epidemic among workers, Manhattan Project doctors embarked on a human experiment that was as chilling as it was closely guarded: the systematic injection of unsuspecting Americans with radioactive plutonium. In this shocking exposé, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Eileen Welsome reveals the unspeakable scientific trials that reduced thousands of American men, women, and even children to nameless specimens with silvery radioactive metal circulating in their veins. Spanning the 1930s to the 1990s, filled with hundreds of newly declassified documents and firsthand interviews, The Plutonium Files traces the behind-the-scenes story of an extraordinary fifty-year cover-up. It illuminates a shadowy chapter in this country's history and gives eloquent voice to the men and women who paid for our atomic energy discoveries with their health--and sometimes their lives.

As World War II reached its climax, the U.S. push to create an atomic bomb spawned an industry the size of General Motors almost overnight. But a little-understood human dilemma quickly arose: How was all the radiation involved in building and testing the bomb going to affect the countless researchers, soldiers, and civilians exposed to it? Government scientists scrambled to find out, fearing cancer outbreaks and worse, but in their urgency conducted classified experiments that bordered on the horrific: MIT researchers fed radioactive oatmeal to residents of a state boys' school outside Boston; prisoners in Washington and Oregon were subjected to crippling blasts of direct radiation; and patients with terminal illnesses (or so it was hoped) were secretly injected with large doses of plutonium--survivors were surreptitiously monitored for years afterward.

It was these plutonium guinea pigs that set journalist Eileen Welsome on her decade-long search to expose this grisly chapter of America's atomic age, a feat that would earn her the Pulitzer Prize. In the impressively thorough and compelling Plutonium Files, Welsome recounts her work with a reporter's gift for description, characterizing early radiation researchers as "a curious blend of spook, scientist, and soldier," tirelessly interviewing survivors and their families, and providing social and political context for a complex and far-reaching scandal. Perhaps most damning is that not only did these cold-war experiments violate everything from the Hippocratic Oath to the Nuremberg Code, Welsome reveals, they were often ill-conceived, inconclusive, and repetitive--"they were not just immoral science, they were bad science." --Paul Hughes --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title. In a deeply shocking and important expos?, Welsome takes the lid off the thousands of secret, government-sponsored radiation experiments performed on unsuspecting human "guinea pigs" at U.S. hospitals, universities and military bases during the Cold War. This riveting report greatly expands on Welsome's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 articles in the Albuquerque Tribune, which told how 18 men, women and children scattered in hospital wards across the country were injected with plutonium by U.S. Army and Manhattan Project doctors between 1945 and 1947. As Welsome demonstrates, the scope of the government's radiation experimentation program went much further. She documents how, between 1951 and 1962, the army, navy and air force used military troops in flights through radioactive clouds, "flashblindness" studies and tests to measure radio-isotopes in their body fluids. Additionally, she reveals that cancer patients were subjected to total-body irradiation, and women, children, the poor, minorities, prisoners and the mentally disabled were targeted for radio-isotope "tracer" studies, frequently without their consent and in some cases suffering excruciating side effects and premature deaths. In 1993, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary launched a campaign to make public all documents relating to the experiments, which had been kept secret. Welsome cogently argues that O'Leary's efforts resulted in a Republican vendetta that led to her ouster. Written with commendable restraint, this engrossing narrative draws liberally on declassified memos, briefings, phone calls, interviews and medical records to convey the enormity of the irradiation program and the bad science behind the flawed and dangerous testsAand to document the government's systematic cover-up. Anyone who cares about America's history, moral health and future should read this book. 8-city author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title. Expanding on her Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper series, Welsome's shocking expos? reveals that during the Cold War Americans were injected with plutonium without their knowledge in secret government experiments to see if radiation caused cancer. This is superb investigative journalism. (LJ 9/15/99) Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Journalist Welsome won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for her expose of the secret experiments conducted by the "bomb doctors" of Los Alamos, who injected 18 patients with plutonium without their knowledge or consent during the cold war. Some died soon after. Others lived for decades in pain and ill health, which they passed on to their descendants in the form of birth defects. Welsome's aggressive research and courageous reporting coincided with the release of classified documentation of thousands of other cases involving the deliberate yet clandestine exposure of civilians, prison inmates, and military personnel to high levels of radiation. As a result, President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments was established, but its shocking disclosures and the subsequent public outcry flashed by too quickly and inconsequentially to take root in our national consciousness. So now, in this reportorial tour de force, Welsome presents the entire harrowing story of the catastrophic consequences of the atomic weapons establishment's almost unimaginable hubris and immorality. As skilled in rendering science comprehensible as she is in articulating the ethical issues involved, Welsome is also an accomplished profiler. Her portraits of medical officers who were so desperate to understand how radiation and plutonium affected the body they broke the Hippocratic oath as well as every other law of decency are chilling, and her dramatic and compassionate depictions of the mothers, children, and blue-collar workers these monsters tortured--people who were, for the most part, poor, uneducated, and sick--are unforgettable, the fabric, one would think, of nightmares, and every bit of it true. Welsome has compiled a staggering and invaluable chronicle of the most ghoulish and appalling aspects of the creation of the atom bomb, an undertaking that has put every human being at risk, and with which we have yet to even begin to come to terms. Donna Seaman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

[Ms. Welsom has written] a fierce expose of governmental duplicity and dangerous science. A decade ago Welsome, a reporter for the Albuquerque Tribune, happened upon a reference in an air force report to a nuclear waste pile that contained the carcasses of several animals that had been used in testing the effects of radiation. The report hinted that animals were not the only subjects. Intrigued, Welsome began to sift through a mountain of official documents, discovering that, from 1945 to 1947, 18 unsuspecting civiliansmen, women, and even children scattered in quiet hospital wards across the countryhad been injected with plutonium to test the effects of radioactive materials on the human body. Such testing formed part of a federal program that employed, in the words of a government film narrator, every angle and every gadget we can to find out what really happens when an atomic bomb kicks out fiercely at the world around it. In a tour de force of investigative reporting, Welsome tracked down some of these subjects; and she weaves their stories into a larger narrative, one that tells the story of US government Cold War medical experimentation as a whole. Much of this testing, it appears, was unnecessaryafter all, the government had thousands of preexisting subjects, the Japanese victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some of it, Welsome suggests, was done at the behest of US atomic scientists at Los Alamos, N.M., who were worried about their own health. Those physicists, as scientist Arthur Compton wrote, knew what had happened to the early experimenters with radioactive materials. Not many of them had lived very long. Neither did many of those 18 victims, and neither did thousands of soldiers and civilians exposed to atomic-bomb blasts in the deserts of the Southwest, all in the name of delivering the world from Communism. The literature on the official crimes of the Cold War era is large and growing. Welsomes stunning book adds much to that literature, and it makes for sobering reading. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Eileen Welsome has received the George Polk Award for National Reporting and the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, among other honors. She currently resides in Denver.


61 linear feet (123 Boxes)

Language of Materials



Eileen Welsome was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 after she wrote a series of articles in the Albuquerque Tribune exposing the actions of the United States government in using humans as unknowing subjects in radiation experiments during the Cold War. Her book, The Plutonium Files was published in October 1999 as a follow up to those articles. The Plutonium Files Collection contains the accumulation of Welsome’s research materials for her articles and the book that followed. It should be noted that most of the material is photocopied from the collections of other institutions, and is not owned by the University of Colorado Archives. Researchers should be aware of this restriction when using this collection and cite the collection of origin; it is necessary to contact the original institutions in order to obtain the necessary permissions for the use of such material.


It is arranged into the following series: Series 1: Plutonium Files, n.d. Subseries 1.1: Original Plutonium Victims, n.d. Subseries 1.2: Radioactive Injections, General, n.d. Subseries 1.3: Patricia Durbin’s Research, n.d. Series 2: Research Facilities, 1940-1999 Series 3: Military Programs and Weapons Testing, 1945-1962 Series 4: Government Departments, 1940-1997 Series 5: Non Governmental Organizations, n.d. Series 6: Personnel, 1947 Series 7: Congressional Documents, 1974-1994 Series 8: Openness and Secrecy: A Symposium on Accountability, 1945-1972 Series 9: Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE), 1943-1997 Series 10: Eileen Welsome’s Notes, n.d. Series 11: Rocky Flats, 1997-2000 Series 12: Correspondence, n.d.

Processed by Megan Lillie, June 2003 Transcribed by Katelyn Morken, July 2018.
June 2003
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Repository Details

Part of the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries, Rare and Distinctive Collections Repository

1720 Pleasant Street
184 UCB
Boulder Colorado 80503 United States