Huge plutonium story grew from footnote Reporter dug deep for details of secret experiments


Washington -- Eileen Welsome found her future in a footnote.

In the tiny type of a scholarly report on animal experiments, the Albuquerque Tribune reporter learned that American scientists had injected people with plutonium nearly 50 years ago to learn how the deadly substance would travel through the body.

That bit of information sent her on a six-year journey that finally opened to public scrutiny a shocking and hidden chapter in atomic history and has made her a contender for a Pulitzer Prize for reporting.

None of that seemed likely when she first spotted the footnote in 1987 and called it to her city editor's attention. "You won't believe this story!" she had said. "There are these people who were injected with plutonium!"

His response: "Well, we hired you to be the neighborhood writer."

She could have stopped right there, with the knowledge that she had at least made an effort. She could have been overwhelmed, too, by the odds against a reporter for a small newspaper in New Mexico -- the 35,000-circulation Tribune isn't even the biggest paper in Albuquerque -- uncovering information that the government did not want uncovered.

But she wasn't. In her spare time, Ms. Welsome started gathering information.

"My imagination was so caught by this idea," she said, "that it was a kind of thing that I couldn't forget. It was just baffling to me. I just wanted to learn more."

Who were these people? What had become of them? How could such an experiment have happened?

Since her three-part series answering those questions was published in November, President Clinton has ordered the establishment of an advisory committee to review the plutonium experiment and a host of other Cold War-era radiation tests on at least 800 people without their knowledge. Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary has said that victims deserve a governmental apology and compensation.

And Ms. Welsome the interviewer has become Ms. Welsome the interviewee, appearing on CNN, C-SPAN and radio talk shows. She has testified on Capitol Hill about what she says has been a cover-up of the experiment because many names and medical records have yet to be released.

Her work on the story continues. On a recent trip to Washington, she pushed the Energy Department to open up more files and spent time poring over newly acquired documents with Elmerine Whitfield Bell, the daughter of one of the patients in the plutonium experiment.

"It's an obsession to her," Mrs. Bell said.

Ms. Welsome, 42, clearly prefers to talk about her story rather than herself. After a childhood spent largely in the South, she discovered journalism as a young adult in the most practical of ways: She needed a job.

In search of one, she found herself in a newsroom in Chapel Hill, N.C. She was hired to work in production, preparing plates for the presses. She fell in love with the words coming off the presses and began to write feature articles.

'Just won't stop'

Ms. Welsome had been a college dropout, but her experience at the paper persuaded her to finish school and get a journalism degree. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1980, she worked as a reporter for several small weekly and daily newspapers. Having landed at the Albuquerque Tribune in 1987, she has won several journalism awards for reports on the exploitation of New Mexico wildlife and the demise of a public utility company.

"When I'm not working, I'm constantly getting thrown off my horse," she said.

A self-described "obsessive-compulsive," she tries to relax by playing the piano and reading and listening to poetry. She lives with her husband, Tim Martin, an assistant city editor at the competing Albuquerque Journal, and their dog and cat.

A tiny woman with straight blond hair, Ms. Welsome "is one of those people who just won't stop. She's a rare breed of reporter," said Tim Gallagher, editor of the Albuquerque Tribune. "Her husband says God made Eileen so small to give the rest of the world a chance."

Ms. Welsome was not the first to report on the plutonium experiment. There had been stories on it in scientific journals, and it was mentioned in a 1986 congressional report that was covered by many newspapers.

But it was reported as a "one-day story," and major media did not pursue it further. Interested in the human dimension, Ms. Welsome worked relentlessly to identify the patients who had been part of an experiment that began in 1945 and continued with follow-up studies for nearly three decades.

"Somebody has to talk about it," she said. "Yes, it was in the scientific literature, but the pain wasn't. The suffering wasn't. The deceit wasn't. And that's what is in the series."

Through her reporting, she learned that scientists had injected the substance, which was known to be deadly, into patients without their informed consent. The scientists were seeking to determine how plutonium travels through the body.

Those selected for the experiment were supposedly terminally ill, so that the plutonium would not hasten their deaths. But seven lived for at least 10 years afterward, a fact that called into question their initial diagnoses. It is unclear what effect the plutonium had on them, but Ms. Welsome's articles detail health problems that may have been related to the injections.

"When I see people so abused and taken advantage of, that like pushes a button, and it enrages me," she said. "It's the abuse of power that drives me as a journalist."

Ms. Welsome said she "became outraged" each time the government rejected a request for information. "When someone said, 'No, you can't have this,' I said, 'Oh, yes I can.' "

Through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Energy Department in 1989, she received documents with partial descriptions of the experiment. But the documents did not name the patients, and she did not know how to find them. In 1991, she put the story aside and headed off to Stanford University for a year, having won a prestigious journalism fellowship.

When she returned to her paper in 1992, she ran across her plutonium files.

This time, she saw something she had not noticed before: a reference in an Energy Department document to Italy, Texas, home of the physician of a patient identified as "CAL-3." The records also indicated that CAL-3 was black and had had his leg amputated years before.

Knowing that Italy is a small town, Ms. Welsome called its City Hall and described what she knew of the man. The person Ms. Welsome reached knew immediately that Elmer Allen, who had died the year before, was the man she was seeking. The person offered the phone number for Allen's widow. "I almost cried," Ms. Welsome said.

Painstaking work

She went on to find the families of four other patients through a variety of imaginative techniques. A history professor provided her with a letter that gave the last name and town of one of the patients.

Ms. Welsome called cemeteries in Rochester, N.Y., after she learned that the bodies of some patients had been exhumed. Eleven of the patients had been injected in Rochester. She identified two other patients by contacting a doctor who had treated them. The doctor could not remember one name at first, but Ms. Welsome found a piece of paper that jarred her memory. With the energy documents in front of her, Ms. Welsome said to herself: "There is a clue here. If I just sit on my couch, breeze through it subconsciously, there will be something."

She found an undated memo scrawled with "Charlton died 1/8?"

Hoping that it was the name of the patient, she called the doctor, who confirmed the identity.

After initial indifference, the Albuquerque Tribune freed her from her daily assignments once she found the family of Elmer Allen. She spent 10 months reporting and writing a detailed series that described the lives of the patients, their families, the reasons for the experiment and the ethical questions involved..

At the newspaper, 20 to 30 calls now come in each day from people who believe that they are victims of government radiation experiments.

"She's like a savior for these people," said Mrs. Bell, the daughter of one of the plutonium patients.

Ms. Welsome listens to their stories and keeps digging. "One determined person, it's true, can change the world," she said.

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