Great Balls of Fire

Dozens of prisoners had their testicles bombarded with radiation in the name of science back in the ’60s and ’70s. Now, they’re getting some long-delayed payback.


In 1963, America had yet to land on the moon, but US scientists were already pondering a matter of extreme gravity, at least to those involved: How might space radiation affect astronauts’ testicles?

They were also curious about the radiated gonads of unsuspecting workers at America’s atomic energy plants: Could they have children? Perhaps worse, what if they did?

In an ugly exercise of rudimentary science that is only now coming to a close, a captive group of human guinea pigs — inmates of Washington and Oregon prisons — were lured into a literal balls-out effort to answer those questions. Enticed with cash and suggestions that participating could help win them parole, and lulled by official assurances that the tests were safe, dozens of prisoners between 1963 and 1973 lined up, stripped down and offered their genitalia to what science called “reproductive radiation tests.”

The inmates, however, later learned that the experiments, conducted by the University of Washington on behalf of the federal government, were far riskier than they had been told: Some may have died and others suffered testicular cancer or life-altering medical conditions resulting from the tests.

Now, after years of litigation, a US District Court judge in Spokane is about to approve what attorneys say will be a historic $2.4 million class-action settlement from UW and the Washington State Department of Corrections.

For the prisoners, the tests seemed like a good idea at the time. Inmates were getting 25 cents a day working in prison industries. They could earn $25 by letting it all hang out in the name of science.

“At present I am serving seven years,” Walla Walla State Penitentiary prisoner Number 24 wrote in his 1964 application to have his testicles bombarded with x-rays. “I am in good health and the money would be helpful.”

Even more enticing, explains a former prisoner known as Number 14, was the experimenters’ promise to write letters to the parole board on behalf of inmate test subjects — some of whom did indeed benefit from shortened sentences.

And why worry? Former inmate Rob White of Seattle remembers the tests being described as “glorified chest x-rays.” A technician told him he was being exposed to up to 400 rads. What he didn’t realize was that one rad is equal to six or more chest x-rays.

Most of the inmates stood in front of a revved-up General Electric x-ray machine, getting zapped for up to 10 minutes a session. Others said they laid down on a buzzing bed-like contraption and lowered their testicles through a small opening into a water-filled box, then were radiated — although some inmates insist that was a planned procedure never actually used.

The tests were conducted by University of Washington endocrinologist Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen, under a private contract with the Atomic Energy Commission (now the US Energy Department). Paulsen, now 73, has refused comment in recent years since legal actions were filed against him. But previously he defended the tests, saying “If our work was unethical, then you’d have to say that all the [federal and UW advisory boards] that approved it in those days were completely unethical, and so, no, that’s not true.”

Paulsen performed the Walla Walla tests on 63 inmates. His one-time college mentor, the late Carl Heller, administered similar experiments at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem during the same time, exposing 67 inmates to testicular radiation under the sponsorship of the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation of Seattle.

The $505,000 Washington study and the $1.2 million Oregon experiment were also funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA officials and some unnamed astronauts even sat in on Heller’s meetings, government documents show, but apparently did not attend actual ball-zappings.

In the years following the tests, many of the prisoner-testees became concerned about a rash of suspicious skin eruptions and testicular cysts, prompting a group of Oregon inmates to file a $4.3 million class action suit. The result was a mere $2,000 settlement for each subject. But their case did help expose the little-known tests.

In 1995, a Clinton presidential commission on nationwide human radiation experiments found some of the long-ago US tests well-intended and even groundbreaking. The review looked at some of the 4,000 US radiation tests undertaken from 1944-1974, when using unsuspecting subjects as guinea pigs was an accepted practice.

Best remembered are the atomic tests on military personnel in the Nevada desert; less known were such experiments as the feeding of radioactive cereal in the 1940s and 1950s to young male science club members at the Fernald School in Massachusetts. (The MIT study at the school promised a special diet “rich” in iron). Today, formal signed consent forms are required for any human testing. The commission determined, however, that the captive Washington and Oregon subjects were in effect coerced and not fully warned of the risks.

Two years later, inmate and former testee Melvin Briggs settled a groundbreaking lawsuit against Paulsen and the state for an undisclosed amount. Briggs, who murdered a 12-year-old Spokane boy in 1965, was involved in two separate experiments at Walla Walla. Still a state inmate, Briggs says he has had a penis cyst removed and suffers from skin lesions.

Meanwhile, the presidential study had piqued the interest of Berger and Montague, a Philadelphia law firm specializing in class-action human experiment cases. The firm took up the languishing Washington and Oregon prisoner causes in conjunction with its Seattle legal associates Byrnes & Keller.

Their work led to the $2.4 million class-action settlement from UW and the Washington Department of Corrections, which is expected to be formally approved later this year.

“There is a tentative agreement,” the inmates’ Seattle attorney Brad Keller says. As a result of settlement talks ordered in last summer by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the state will not admit liability, says Keller, but will pay out as much as $80,000 to some inmates (before attorney fees) and offer “an expression of sympathy.” Whether that “could be deemed an apology is open to interpretation,” he notes.

Settlement talks continue in the Oregon case, which is separate from the Washington suit.

“This particular case had importance that went far beyond the claims for money damages,” says attorney Keller. “The fact that human beings in Washington state prisons were used in experiments was a dark chapter in the history our state. It was a chapter that needed to be told and revealed to the public.”