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Oral Histories

Health Physicist Karl Z. Morgan, Ph.D.


Short Biography

College and Graduate School in North Carolina; Unintentionally Joining the Manhattan Project in Chicago in 1943

Chosen for the New Field of Health Physics (1943)

Determining Safe Doses for Ionizing Radiation at Chicago (1943)

Developing New Dosimetry Instrumentation

Arrival at Oak Ridge (1943)

Creating a Health Physics Division (1943–44)

Concern for the Radiological Safety of Workers and the Nearby Public

Participation in Human Erythema Dose Studies, Using Phosphorus-32 (1943–44)

Human Research Protocols; Informed Consent

Plutonium Injection Studies at an Oak Ridge Military Hospital (1945)

Oak Ridge Committees (Isotope Distribution, Human Use, et al.)

Studies in Uranium Ingestion, Injection, and Inhalation

Struxness and Bernard Go to a Boston Hospital to Assist in Studies in Radioisotope Injection Toxicity (Mid-'50s)

Criticizes Therapy Practiced at ORNL's Total-Body Irradiation Facilities

Hidden Military Funding to Explore Radiological Warfare During the Cold War

Atmospheric Releases of Short-Lived Isotopes Over Grazing Pastures

Developing a Chemical Dissolving Process to Remove Iodine From the Irradiated Uranium Slugs

Plans Laid for Atmospheric Releases of Radioisotopes

Unintentionally Widespread Dispersion From Phosphorus-32 Atmospheric Releases

Influence of Secrecy in Decisions About Radiation Exposure

Advice for Disposing of Tritium Safety Rebuffed by NRC

Chairing the Public Health Fund (1980–92)

Vanderbilt University Study of Pregnant Women and Iron-59

Difficulty Obtaining Historical Information, Despite Freedom of Information Act

Studies on Nuclear Waste Storage Issues

Participation in Human Erythema Dose Studies, Using Phosphorus-32 (1943–44)

YUFFEE: I think, now, maybe we'll try to pick your brain to discuss some of the people who were performing research using human subjects. So I'll start off with a general question. What can you tell us about research that was performed at Oak Ridge using human subjects? At least, during the first part of your tenure there?
MORGAN: The only study using human subjects which I knew anything about, at the time, (this was 1943 and '44), was with respect to a small study in which I was involved, using phosphorus-32 plaques18 to determine the erythema dose. Would you like me to tell you something about that study?
MORGAN: Well, as we have just discussed, at that time erythema was the principal concern, and we made darn sure no one would get a lethal dose. As soon as we arrived at Clinton Laboratories, we saw the workmen handling these little cylinders, called slugs of uranium, with their bare hands. Stone, Parker, Gamerstfelder, and I tried to get them to wear leaded gloves, but as soon as we turned our backs, they would be handling them with their bare hands. The uranium slugs were black and harmless-looking—just cold metal, as far as the workmen were concerned—and the lead gloves were very cumbersome and difficult to wear. They weighed a great deal and were not comfortable, so we felt we had a problem.

Keep in mind that skin erythema was the main concern. So, three or four of us got together and decided we've got to get some data, because there is nothing in the literature. We had already checked that thoroughly, of course. When I say "thoroughly," I mean not just the data from this country, but from the world bank of library information.

Well, it occurred to us [that] the best source to use, (and what seemed safest and most appropriate), was phosphorus-32. We knew from studies from people like John Wheeler and others, that sulfur-32, if exposed to fast neutrons above 5 million electron-volts [(MeV)], knocks out a proton, and the neutron sits in its place in the nucleus. So the atomic mass doesn't change, and the atomic number then would go down by one. This changes sulfur-32 to phosphorus-32.

We got some sulfur cylinders and had them sawed so we had little plaques about an inch and one-half in diameter and a quarter of an inch thick. We then put them in the reactor, in the fast neutron area near the slugs of reactor fuel, and "cooked" them, as we called it: allowed them to be exposed to fast neutrons for an appropriate period. This process, in which the fast neutrons above 5 MeV were replacing protons in the nuclei, converted some of the sulfur into phosphorus. Then we had little plaques that were very radioactive, that had a considerable amount of phosphorus-32, a strong beta emitter. Of course, this produces bremsstrahlung19 and x rays, as well. We took these little plaques, and taped them on our arms and legs, in some cases, and [on] about twelve girls [(young women)] we called "meter readers," and nurses.
CAPUTO: So you were a subject in this experiment?
MORGAN: Yes, I took part in the experiment. We kept them on our bodies in this manner for some time. After about a week, some of the blonde girls, in our [group of] meter readers, and some of the nurses, began to complain that their arms were itching and painful. So we lifted up the plaques a little bit and looked under them, and sure enough, the arms were very red, and we watched carefully.

Shortly after that, [our medical] doctors reported seeing some signs of early ulceration from the white pimples beginning to show up among the red patches. So we got quite worried, and of course immediately removed the [plaques] from the young ladies. Of course, older people, like Stone, Parker, and myself, who were used to some hard work, had a thicker epidermis.20 The young blondes, they were, especially, more susceptible than the browns and brunettes.
YUFFEE: Because of their fair skin, you think?
MORGAN: The thickness of the epidermis. As you know, the erythema begins primarily in the epidermal region. So, we carried on an experiment that I would never dream of doing today, or would not have dreamed of a few years later at Oak Ridge when I became HP [(Health Physics)] director. I wouldn't have done it except [after] having done a great many preliminary studies, which we did not do. I would have rushed to have put it first as a very rushed project, one that you had to pursue with all speed ahead, because we had the workers that were potentially in trouble, but we were sort of working in the dark and taking big risks, which we should not have taken, without knowing better what we were doing.

You can think, perhaps, of better studies. For example, we could have put these plaques on some rabbits and dogs and maybe even on some primates, monkeys and baboons, before going to homo sapiens.21 I think I'm guilty. The other parties, except for Gamertsfelder, are all deceased, so I'll take the blame.

We found experimentally the human skin erythema beta-particles dose, and that was the dose from the surface of uranium. Parker and I independently later did theoretical calculations and [determined] that the beta dose would be about two hundred and sixty mr [(millirem)] per hour. I carried on further theoretical studies and found the x-ray and alpha dose, but they were not important in this case. This is the first human study of three that I or my group, the Health Physics Group, conducted at the Laboratory.
CAPUTO: Do you remember the decisionmaking process? How that experiment got approved, or what steps you had to go through before you could conduct the experiment?
MORGAN: At that time, you have to remember that we were primarily scientists with no supervision. Scientists don't like to get approval from anybody. They always like to feel they know their business, they know what they're doing. They don't bother their boss; they don't feel they have a boss! Good scientists don't. I guess we were a bit arrogant and impudent maybe, in some respects, but that's the way scientists were; and I think, for most part, top scientists are that way today. They don't like to feel they have to go through the boss and say, "Can I turn this crank this direction so far?" or "What will the electrons do in this case?" So we asked nobody, and got permission from nobody, and nobody expected us to get permission as we determined the human erythema dose.

Human Research Protocols; Informed Consent

CAPUTO: Did you write a protocol before performing the experiment or talk among yourselves about how it would be conducted?
MORGAN: We, of course—as we had lunch at the cafeteria, and maybe a beer in the evening—discussed various ways to get the needed information. At that time in Oak Ridge—you remember it wasn't called Oak Ridge, just a little community near Clinton—we got together sometimes and discussed our work in the lab lunchrooms, but we were very careful not to even suggest anything about radiation except at the laboratory. So far as I can recall, our only discussions were the physics and mechanics of the problem of making 32P [(phosphorus-32)] sources, and we took for granted that no one would object to us getting this sorely needed information when we would cause them no harm. We thought that the skin erythema would be just a little bit of sunburn-equivalent on your arm, and nobody worried about that. Even then, people sat out in the sun to improve their complexion. There was no problem, and we were not expected to [have to] discuss this with management or anyone else.
YUFFEE: Outside of the Health Physics Division, were you aware at that time of any biological research that was going on, say, with the Biology Division?
MORGAN: I can say categorically that as far as the Biology Division is concerned, though I was not intimately aware of many things that were going on there, I knew Alex Hollaender22 well enough to believe that he would have opposed any potentially harmful human studies with the same vigor that I did and would have done [were I head of that division]. I would have to see, in indelible print, evidence that he or anyone in his group did human studies or used humans as guinea pigs, (to put it more crudely.) Things could have happened of which I was not aware of, since a big portion of the time Alex was working in the Y-12 area, which was about six or eight miles separate from the X-10 area, where my laboratory offices were.
CAPUTO: I was curious: you weren't really allowed to talk about radiation outside. What were the workers told about the risk of radiation, the ones who were handling the material in that early time period?
MORGAN: In that early period, they were only told, "You don't want to expose your hands and face to it or you'd get erythema." That's all we knew.
YUFFEE: Were they told what erythema was?
MORGAN: "Sunburn," I guess we used that instead of the word "erythema"; but with the mechanics and meter girls and so on, if we said "erythema" we might have [given the] Greek or Latin [origin of the word erythema] and might have gone into that a little bit, explaining the red injury.

Plutonium Injection Studies at an Oak Ridge Military Hospital (1945)

YUFFEE: I guess I have a specific question about one of the more infamous studies that took place that we know about: the plutonium injections. One of which we know was given at the hospital in Oak Ridge in, I guess, April of 1945. Is that something that you knew of back then?
YUFFEE: You knew that the injection was going to take place prior to it?
YUFFEE: Do you know who performed the injections?
MORGAN: No. Do you want me to tell you what I know about it?
MORGAN: Bob Stone—the associate director [for Health] under Compton—had his office next to mine at X-10. One morning, he came in all excited and upset. You will have to put this in context of the time and the location that we were in. We were in the South, and it's no reflection on the African Americans, but they were called "niggers." I'm only telling you as I recall; my memory is far from perfect.

As I recall, he said, "Karl, you remember that nigger truck driver that had this accident sometime ago?" I said "Yes," I knew about it. He said, "Well, he was rushed to the military hospital in Oak Ridge and he had multiple fractures. Almost all of his bones were broken, and we were surprised he was alive when he got to the hospital; we did not expect him to be alive the next morning. So this was an opportunity we've been waiting for. We gave him large doses by injection of plutonium-239."

Of course, when you say "-239," it has some [plutonium]-238 and -240 mixed in, but [it is] primarily -239. [For security reasons, the word "plutonium" was never used in 1943–44. Stone continued,] "We were anticipating collecting not just the urine and feces but a number of tissues, such as the skeleton, the liver, and other organs of the body. But this morning, when the nurse went in his room, he was gone. We have no idea what happened, where he is, but we've lost the valuable data that we were expected to get."

I had not even heard of the experiment. I learned later that Stafford Warren23 and Hymer Friedell24 and the others apparently knew about the study, but my project was primarily with physics not with medical or biological studies. So this was the first I heard of the situation.

I heard nothing more about this till some years later. I happened to see a little notice in the Knoxville paper, the News-Sentinel, stating that this man, "a black man"—our society had evolved a little more at that time—had died someplace in eastern North Carolina, as I recall they must have given enough information that I could tie it in with the same fellow.

Then I heard nothing about it till recently. Only recently, more recently in the past few week, I have heard the name of the fellow and more information about his family, etc.
CAPUTO: Who would have had the authority to provide the plutonium for the experiment?
MORGAN: Who would have the authority? That's a good question. In spite of our security, in some ways it was provided in a very ridiculous manner. I think I could have gotten all the plutonium that could be provided for anything I wanted to do, if it could be spared. Joe Hamilton25 got a dribbling amount to supplement his studies that he had done with plutonium-238, [which] he had gotten from the accelerator. I'm sure, confident, that if I'd put the request in, I could have gotten it. But, I suppose, all I would have had to do is walk in Martin Whittaker's office and say, "Martin, we want to do this experiment. We need so many, two or three microcuries." He would have provided it.
CAPUTO: So Martin Whittaker decided, since there was such a little amount of plutonium [available at that time], what had priority—
MORGAN: —In that period, it was very informal. We knew that we had to follow very stringent restrictions to prevent useful information from getting out. You have to keep in mind that during the first several months—this was in the early period [of the Manhattan Project]—health physicists, seniors [like me], were primarily physicists, and the doctors and surgeons were primarily doctors and surgeons, not people working with plutonium. So with all of us, we did the best we knew how, and I think we did a tremendously good job considering our background, and what we were trying to do, and what our major job was.

I don't think it would be any problem in getting the plutonium. Probably— my guess would be that Hymer Friedel or Stafford [Warren] were brought intimately into the earlier stages of [this study]. I say that without any great knowledge, but only because I knew both parties quite well at the time and knew what their interest were and what one of their main goals was: to get information on the risks of plutonium [and uranium]. Was it as hazardous as radium or more hazardous, [was] the essential question.

Oak Ridge Committees (Isotope Distribution, Human Use, et al.)

YUFFEE:Moving out of the postwar era, were you familiar with Paul Aebersold26 and the beginning of the Isotope Distribution Committee?
MORGAN: Yes; I knew him and his wife Mickie quite well: They were in two [of] our dance clubs. Mickie and Paul were excellent dancers. In fact, they gave exhibitions, taught us a lot of the Latin American dances.
YUFFEE: Do you know who else was on the Isotope Distribution Committee? Were you on the committee itself?
MORGAN: I don't remember if I ever knew; I don't think I ever knew.
MORGAN: I probably knew all the people on the committee, but I knew nothing about the committee. I tried to stay away from all politics, all public relations, union problems. Those things I tried to avoid as much as I could.
CAPUTO: Do you know what year Oak Ridge National Laboratory began [its] Human Use Subcommittee?
MORGAN: No, I don't.
CAPUTO: No. Were you on that subcommittee once it started?
MORGAN: I could have been: I was on thousands of committees. Many of them never even met, so I don't recall having been on that specific committee.
YUFFEE: Were you on any committees that might have determined safe levels of exposure to radiation for either employees or for subjects and further studies, further research?
MORGAN: If you knew me, that would be sort of a ridiculous question, because I was on hundreds and hundreds of such committees at the time. I was at Oak Ridge for 29 years, so if you want to go down the line, I could. I was on many, many committees that dealt with those problems of permissible exposure. I guess the majority of them had to do with internal exposure.

You probably know—I'm sure you do—that I published probably the first paper ever published on suggesting or indicating mathematically how to calculate the permissible dose of radioactive material, once into the body, taken from food or air or water. I've said, on the basis of those calculations, comparing primarily with radium and with an arbitrarily selected level of 15 roentgen per year.

Based on that background, having set the levels at the Laboratory and the levels that were rather automatically adopted at Argonne and Hanford, I was asked to be chairman of the Internal Dose Committees of ICRP27 and NCRP,28 the job or position I held for about twenty years. In a very early period, I followed through the same procedure of calculations of permissible levels for all the major radionuclides29 that we were concerned with in the early period. It finally got out of Security and was published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry.30 You probably have a copy. I have it, but not here at my home in Florida.

Studies in Uranium Ingestion, Injection, and Inhalation

YUFFEE: In reviewing some of your bibliographic information on your publications and such, and also reviewing other documents, we've noted that you did some work with Robert Bernard in his uranium research. I was wondering if you can tell us a little bit about that.
MORGAN: You mentioned something about the work of Bernard. As I indicated earlier, we began with actually four members of the Health Physics Division of what became Oak Ridge National Laboratory in time. Shortly after our arrival there in 1944, I became director of the Health Physics—what was later called Health Physics Division. By the time I left Oak Ridge at retirement, we had over 200 [people] in the Health Physics Division. Somewhat less than half of those were [working] in the Applied Health Physics [Group]. That is, they made measurements of the activity at White Oak Lake and the rivers and in the air, and operated the meter program and so on. [The others were engaged in research].

The[y] were [engaged in] various branches of research. One type of research had to with getting better values on internal dose of the radioactive materials. In fact, that was the principal research I eventually engaged in along with Dr. Walter Synder, my assistant director.

Dr. Bernard was head of the one of the [Health Physics] research groups that did research in this area. In the course of this assignment, he and his group, as I recall, on several occasions, agreed to use themselves as guinea pigs. They ingested 131I. I don't recall any inhalations or injection studies, though they might have had a few of several of the radionuclides: I'd hate now try to recall which [radionuclides they ingested]. I do think maybe strontium-90 could have been one. I won't even try to remember the others.

But one of our big [occupational health hazard] unknowns, along with plutonium, was of course that of uranium, because we were not just working with the quantity, we measured in microcuries, but in tons of uranium. So from the neuron and urine and fecal analysis program in health physics that was developed initially by—Ralph Firmanack was one of them; I'll think of the other names perhaps in a little bit—we developed several techniques for the assay31 of these uranic and transuranic32 elements.33 We were at great difficulty in assigning a permissible level for uranium.

I indicated earlier, by this time—this was after 1950—I became a member of ICRP and NCRP. ICRP, you recall, was rejuvenated about 1950. Prior to that and prior to the war, there had been an organization which claims to be the precursor of ICRP, and it's okay to call it that, but it was really an entirely different body and a different structure. ICRP, as-is and as-was, really began in 1950 when I joined; and I was a member, as I indicated, [of] the main commission of 13 members, for about twenty years. I was chairman of Internal Dose of that [international] group and [of] the national group—NCRP—for that same period.

We had sort of an anomaly with uranium: it was the only radionuclide where it appeared that the chemical risk was equal or even greater than the radiation risk. Now, in the case of plutonium or strontium or cesium or americium—any of these others—it was almost absurd to think in terms of [units of mass as small as] grams or milligrams. But in the case of uranium, that was not the case. The data seemed to indicate that uranium as a metal was very toxic. It went to kidneys and some to the liver, a little bit to the bone, but mostly to the kidneys, and it was quite toxic. A lot of this early work, of course, was done at the University of Rochester [in Rochester, New York] and some of the hospitals in that city.
YUFFEE: Those people—would that be the uranium injections that you are referring to?
MORGAN: They not only did injections, but studies of inhalations and ingestion, as I recall. I don't recall at which institutions. A good bit of it was at [various hospitals] located there [in the Rochester area], of course.

Stafford Warren was sort of a fine, but blustering scientist as well as a military officer. Sometimes, when he would be in a scientific discussion, he would sort of forget—he'd think he was still an officer in the military. So friends of his think of the whole Warren when we think of him, not just as you read about him or as you may see him in a certain context.

Struxness and Bernard Go to a Boston Hospital to Assist in Studies in Radioisotope Injection Toxicity (Mid-'50s)

MORGAN: [In any event,] Bernard was quite interested and anxious to get this data. In some publications he read that some work was going on in Boston, and he got in touch with that group. They invited him to come up and work with them.
YUFFEE: Were they at MIT?34
MORGAN: No, I think it was at Boston General Hospital, as I recall. You have to remember, I'm recalling things that I've not even bothered to think about in well over 50 years. I never write things down. The memory pad I have above my ears up here (points to his head), sometimes I think it's getting a little bit illegible. Anyway, as I recall, these reports that they [(Bernard and Struxness)] came across, particularly Bernard—and you keep in mind, we had to be very careful how we published things in those days. They were voluminous, reports that came into our attention at the Laboratory describing what was being done under the auspices or funding of what was then called the Atomic Energy Commission.35

In the health physics research organization under my direction and then under the immediate direction was Dr. Struxness, Edward Struxness. He was likewise quite concerned, so Ed Struxness and Bernard went to Boston and participated in this study. They were welcomed, in particular, because they knew dosimetry, and the group there had just started blundering their way along administering a metal. [The Boston team] could measure grams of metal—micrograms, maybe milligrams—but we did things in terms of microcuries—that is, a millionth of a curie. We had good techniques for measuring alpha radiation, and as I recall from the reports there [at the Boston hospital], [their] instrumentation was relatively crude compared to what we had at that time developed at the Laboratory.

So, Struxness and Bernard went there and worked with them awhile, and shortly afterwards Struxness came into my office and said they had quit. I said, "Why are you back? I thought you [were] to be in Boston. You were supposed to be there for a month or so." He said, "Well, they were doing things that were very irregular and improper and was harming patients, causing them extra pain and early death," and he wanted nothing more to do with the study. I won't say under oath that this is verbatim what he said, but it's as close as I remember. This is certainly the context of what he was saying to me as best I can express it many years later.

Ed never went back to this program, and as far as I know, our cooperation with that program was [temporarily] terminated.

Now, when you have a program of maybe twenty different programs going onall along; then, in addition, applied health physics, I as a [division] director did not necessarily follow all the details. So I don't know how long Bernard stayed there after Struxness came back. I would guess he probably came back to Oak Ridge about the time Struxness did. But I don't know what [Struxness and Bernard] may have told them there, whether it was in a few [harsh] words or what. Ed Struxness is still living and I expect that Bernard is; I don't know. [I suggest you contact them].
YUFFEE: He is.
MORGAN: Is he? I'm glad to know that. He's much younger than I, but Ed is in rather poor health.
YUFFEE: Do you remember in particular what the study up in Boston involved? In terms of: If Struxness said they were harming the patients, did he go into specifics?
MORGAN: The best way to answer your question would be to get the early report. They give the microcuries and micrograms, and the chemical forms that they used in, these injections. Rather than try to recall the chemical forms and the quantities, I suggest you refer to the published reports, or the written [internal] reports. I don't know if—most of them were not published in open literature, but I'm sure that the reports are available; some at the Laboratory [(ORNL)] and some at the hospital.
CAPUTO: Would the isotopes for that experiment [have] come from Oak Ridge?
MORGAN: I would guess, though again I'm not sure. My guess is based on a few tidbits of memory. I think that some of the studies were with enriched uranium; maybe they used different enrichments, but I can't be sure. I seem to vaguely recall that they were [using] some enrichment of the 235U. Whether they tried to get studies where the gram enrichment of -234 was enlarged, I don't know. That would be, of course, much more hazardous, radioactively. These quantities would have come at that time [from Y-12 or K-25 or both]—what was the year? Do you have the approximate year?
YUFFEE: I thought it was in the mid-'50s—'55, '56.
MORGAN: So, the K-25 [gaseous diffusion plant at Oak Ridge] would have been in full operation. So it [(235U)] would have come by [way of] K-25—the electromagnetic process [had] long-since given out at Y-12 and Tennessee Eastman had long since left Oak Ridge. So it would have originated—most likely—from K-25, though it could have [come] from Paducah[, Kentucky] or one of the other places.
YUFFEE: But it definitely would have been from the Oak Ridge area?
MORGAN: No, it could have been Paducah or one of the other uranium separation plants. Such as I recall, some of it was enriched [in 235U].

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