We condemn the war and support Ukraine in its struggle for democratic values.
We also encourage you to join the #StandWithUkraine movement by making a donation at this link
Radiation Experiments during World War II

American citizens suffered tremendously due to exposure to radiation that occurred during World War II. There are a number of quotable cases on how people were forced or mislead into participating in radioactive experiments. Most of these tests were conducted by the Anatomic Energy Commission, Department of Health, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Health, and Department of Defense (Cantwell, 2001). Thousands of test subjects affected by these experiments did not benefit from their participation in any way. Doctors are demonstrated in these tests as unethical professionals, who subjected thousands of ill-informed persons to radiation with the aim of evaluating chemicals effects on human beings. The broad aim of these experiments was to determine the effects of the radiation agents to different body processes. The materials were ingested, inhaled or injected into the subjects without their full awareness of the consequences of the radiation elements (Eisenstark, 2005).

During World War II, the sides involved were too blinded by the need to overcome their opponents and did not hesitate to use their own citizens in harmful experiments. However, some scientists defended the experiments and vehemently objected to the criticism leveled against these experiments. According to John Simpson, a scientist who worked at a nuclear research firm conducting plutonium tests, it is through the effect of irradiation resulting from these experiments that the world understands dangers of radiation to man and all living things. The researchers’ choice of the subjects for the experiments has also been given substantial support. Supporters of projects argued that the test subjects, such as terminally ill patients, mentally ill patients, and criminals, were unproductive in the society . However, there are questions about cases involving infants and military personnel (The plain truth, 2012).

Specific Experiments

One of the people who have done a great deal  to expose the stories of irradiation is a former Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary. She revealed a report showing the extent of unannounced nuclear explosions, during which the government tested over 200 nuclear weapons and used more than 600 people as guinea pigs.

Nuclear Bombs

One of the experiments that proved to be a threat to the health of the exposed individuals was a military activity carried out in Nevada. Military and civilians were the culprits of these radiation adding to over four hundred thousand individuals. The effects of the radiations on the survivors included increased likelihood of cancer development, skin conditions, sterility, and deformities in newborns. The government was carrying out these nuclear tests without public consent or knowledge. Recounting his personal experience of the experiment, James D. Tyler, a former marine, explained that they were commanded to stand in ditches as the nuclear weapons were being tested. According to him, there were more than10,000 participants, who witnessed over 29 nuclear bomb tests (Greaney, 2009).

Mr. Tyler is one of the lucky survivors of the repercussions of the test. Most of his colleagues ended up suffering from esophageal cancer and leukemia. The government kept close, secret vigilance on the affected people monitoring how they were fairing. Soldiers were used to supply food and medical services to the victims, as they observed the effects of the tests (Greaney, 2009).

Testicular Irradiation

In 1986, a report was compiled by the Committee on Energy and Commerce U.S. House of Representatives that demonstrated the highest level of human rights violation and a case of racism. The report identified an experiment involving 130 prisoners, mostly black Americans, who had their testicles irradiated. According to the sources, the consent form expressed the negative effects of radiation as sterility and radiation burns, but never warned them of cancer. After being irradiated, the participants underwent vasectomy to prevent the passage of mutated genes. Ideally, the normal level of roentgen supposed to be given to an individual per year is six; however, these inmates received doses of up to 600 roentgens. The inmates were ill-informed and confused to participate in the research for money.

Plutonium Radiation

Another radiation test carried out during World War II involved injecting human test subjects with plutonium. In a report published by the Albuquerque Tribune, one of the survivors of the experiment complained of having his leg amputated by researchers. Long-term effects that were attributed to the radiation shot included seizures and depression. The victim was quoted as saying that he had never given his consent to such an experiment. Moreover, the University of Chicago was also involved in plutonium experiments, in which three people were injected with this radioactive element. In 1946, an experiment to determine how plutonium is absorbed in the alimentary canal was conducted on human beings at a metallurgical laboratory in Chicago. Despite the researchers being fully aware of the harmful effects of plutonium on the individuals, they continued without giving a detailed consent form to the participants (Welcome, 2000).

Uranium Experiments

Another radioactive element used in experiments on humans was uranium. In one of the experiments conducted at the University of Rochester, individuals were injected with uranium 234 and uranium 235. The main aim of this study was to evaluate the toxicity level of uranium on kidneys. It should be noted that the kidney is one of the vital organs in the body, and its poisoning would mean that other organs could suffer serious effects, too. The individuals were injected with different dosages of uranium ranging from 6.4 to 70.7 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. In the 1950s, Dr. W. Sweet conducted a research to determine the possibility of using uranium to treat brain tumors. His choice of respondents leaves doubts as to whether individuals or their next of kin were offered a consent form. Sweet used terminally ill-patients who were either in comatose or semi-comatose conditions. However, the authenticity of the experiment is still doubted, since most of the individuals who received the dosages were not suffering from a brain tumor (Keever, 2011).

Iodine Radiation

One of the elements that were extensively evaluated by different US agencies was iodine. The Atomic Energy Commission sponsored a number of researches to evaluate the effect of iodine on human organs and organ systems. In one of the experiments conducted at the University of Iowa, pregnant women were given iodine-131, its concentration ranging from 3.7 to 7.4 MBq. The main purpose of the study was to evaluate the duration of pregnancy after iodine infiltrated the developing embryo through the placenta. The main consequences of iodine crossing the placental barrier included immediate abortion or sustained developmental abnormalities. Judging from these consequences, it can be deduced that not every person who participated in this experiment was fully informed of the effects (Lederer, 1997).

Being one of the organs in which iodine is found in high concentrations, the thyroid grand also interested researchers. Two studies used infants to determine the level of iodine concentration in the thyroid gland. In a study conducted at the University of Iowa, a sample group of 25 infants with body weight of between 2.5 to 3.9 kg was orally administered iodine-131. The goal of the study was to determine the level of concentration of this element in the thyroid gland. In a concurrent experiment at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, a total of 28 infants were given iodine using a gastric feeding tube to test the level of iodine present in the thyroid gland (United state congress, 1986). 

In the early 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission sponsored another iodine-based study that was conducted at Harper Hospital. The aim of the study was to compare and contrast the differences of effects of radioactive iodine on premature and full-term infants. The experiment involved a total of 65 premature and full-term infants (the United States Congress, 1986).

In the late 1950s, a radioactive iodine element was used on mentally handicapped children from Sonoma State Hospital. The kids were given spinal taps and/or irradiated fluids, such as milk, water and other drinks. Most of them died and their brains were taken by researchers for evaluation. The majority of these cases happened without the consent or even awareness of the next of kin of the children. It is estimated that over 1400 patients happened to be used in this study (United state congress, 1986).

Radioactive iodine was not only injected to humans, but also emitted into the atmosphere. For instance, in 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission released iodine-131 and xenon-133 into the atmosphere, thus contaminating an area of nearly 50 km. The affected area involved three major towns near the Hanford site (Lee miller, 1986).

Phosphorus Experiments

Radioactive phosphorous-32 was another element that was used in experiments on humans. Medical College of Virginia performed experiments on patients who were severely burned. The dosages of phosphorus used were well above the levels that a healthy individual is expected to tolerate. Ethical considerations during the research were overlooked, since most of the test subjects were poor and black, who were not aware of their consenting rights. The effects of the experiment on the subjects were attributed to the accelerated rate of death among these patients (Gallagher, 1993).

Iron and Calcium Experiments

Radioactive iron was another element that was used on pregnant mothers. A research study conducted at Vanderbilt University involved over 800 pregnant women. The women were fed radioactive iron, but were made to believe it was ‘vitamin drinks’ meant to upgrade the health status of their babies. The research was aimed at determining the rate at which radioactive iron maneuvered through the placenta. Following the exposure, some of the children died, while a number of mothers suffered from anemia, cancer, hair and tooth loss, as well as skin conditions (Keever, 2011). 

At a Massachusetts school called Walter Fernald State School, radioactive calcium and other radioisotopes were fed to students with oatmeal. Most of the participants were mentally disabled, and, therefore, were ill-informed and misled that they were being introduced into a science club. The main aim of the study was to determine the digestion process of these nutrients (Cantwell, 2001).


It is during the Second World War that radium rod experiments were carried out on military personnel. Johns Hopkins Hospital was one of the study areas where radium experiments were performed. During the experiments, researchers inserted radium rods into the noses of schoolchildren as an alternative to adenoidectomy. This was one of the few beneficial researches, since it resulted in the use of nasal radium irradiation as a form of medical treatment (Cantwell, 2001).

Nazi Sterilization Experiments

Radiation experiments were also carried out in Nazi Germany. Most prisoners there were subjected to forceful sterilization, while those who were believed to have hereditary diseases, such as weak-mindedness, schizophrenia, deafness, blindness and insanity among other, were used as test subjects in sterilization experiments. The Nazi government is believed to have forcefully sterilized over four hundred thousand people. In a quest to determine the most efficient and effective sterilization method, radiation was found to be the best choice. Prisoners were radiated with X-rays without their consent or even being aware of the effects (Cantwell, 2001).

Other Experiments

At the University of Cincinnati, patients suffering from cancer underwent an experiment that involved full body irradiation. The patients did not give consent to the experiment. Despite the fact that the researchers were aware of the repercussions, they never gave palliative care drugs to the affected subjects (Cantwell, 2001). Deduction from this study reveals that the researchers never wanted palliative care drugs to interfere with their research.

In May 1945, two groups of ten people were exposed to beta rays at Clinton Laboratory (The United States Congress; House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power, 1986). The aim of the experiment was to determine the dosages capable of causing skin inflammation. From 1943 to 1947, four patients were injected with radioactive polonium, while another patient was administered it orally. The research, carried out at the University of Rochester, was aimed at obtaining correlation information that could be used as a reference for comparison with the levels of polonium excretion in rats. The subjects of the study were selected from patients with incurable diseases, such as lymph cancer and leukemia. The level of doses injected to the patients ranged from 9 to 22 microcuries of polonium.

In 1943 and 1944, three groups of individuals were given whole body doses of x-rays. The groups comprised persons suffering from cancer and arthritic conditions, as well as normal volunteers. The objective of the study was to determine the effects of radiation on blood cells and lay foundations for using radiation to treat malignant cells in the body. However, the subjects used in the experiments received no benefits from the study. The experiments were funded by the Manhattan Project (The United States Congress; House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power, 1986).

In conclusion, it is clear that despite the full knowledge of effects of radiation on the public and test subjects, the researchers and bodies which funded these studies were not willing to share information on negative consequences to the affected persons. Doctors and other researchers either withheld the information on effects of radiation or misled the test subjects. During that time, doctors were respected individuals, and their advice was less questioned. However, they failed to observe their oath and neglected professional ethics. As demonstrated in this paper, most of the test subjects were given wrong information regarding the experiments and made to believe that the experiments were meant to improve their health. In other cases, test subjects were the minority and disadvantaged in the community. This category included poor people, blacks, prisoners, mentally ill, children, infants or seriously sick people, who were ready to be subjected to any treatment offered. Military personnel used in radiation experiments were forced or commanded to do so by their seniors.

Order now

Related essays