The last known surviving victim of secret plutonium and uranium experiments carried out by government scientists 50 years ago got a personal apology Monday from Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary.
Mary Jean Connell, 74, a retired factory worker, was one of six unsuspecting patients injected with highly radioactive uranium at a Rochester hospital in 1946.
In addition, 18 people were injected with plutonium, 11 of them in Rochester. All 18 have all since died, as have the other uranium subjects.
During a 45-minute meeting at a hotel, O’Leary apologized one by one to Connell and the families of seven of the plutonium subjects.
“I think she’s sincere and I’m glad she came,” Connell said of O’Leary,
Connell is the only one of the six uranium patients whose identity has surfaced.
As many as 48 people were injected without their knowledge with plutonium, uranium, polonium, radium, thorium or radioactive lead in 1945 or 1946 by scientists working for the Army’s Manhattan Project.
The scientists, who eventually produced the world’s first atomic bombs, wanted to gauge how radioactive substances react inside humans.
The apology was part of the federal government’s $4.8 million settlement last month with Connell and relatives of 11 people who were injected with plutonium in Illinois, California, Tennessee and New York.
Connell vividly recalls her stay at Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital in October 1946 for an eating disorder that left her weighing just 81 pounds at age 24.
She learned only last year that she was injected with 584 micrograms of uranium 234 and 235, almost 5,000 times the maximum dose permitted in medical experiments today - by scientists trying to learn how much uranium would produce detectable kidney injury in humans.
Ever since, Connell said she has suffered from persistent urinary tract infections, kidney pain and hypertension.
None of the uranium patients, aged 24 to 61, was suffering from life-threatening illnesses and all were required to have normal kidneys and livers at the time of the experiments.
Connell said she plans to buy a new mobile home with her $400,000 share of the settlement.
But she isn’t completely satisfied with the government’s response. She said she fears similar experiments could be undertaken again in secrecy.
“All the safeguards aren’t in place yet,” she said.