May 05, 1997 12:00 PM

MARY JEANNE CONNELL REMEMBERS clearly the moment she was asked to take part in a medical experiment. It was October 1946, and Connell, a quiet 24-year-old farmer’s daughter from Rochester, N.Y., was undergoing treatment for anemia and low weight—81 pounds—at the University of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital. That’s when a nurse escorted her to a lab lined with cages of cats, dogs and rabbits. “[She] asked me if I wanted to help humanity,” Connell recalls. “I laughed it off. I said, ‘No thanks.’ ”

As it turned out, she had no choice. Days later a medical team led by Samuel Bassett, director of the hospital’s metabolism unit, secretly injected Connell with uranium salts, exposing her to a level of radiation 57 times the amount most people would absorb in a lifetime—the equivalent of 11,000 X-rays. “[The doctor] said I would feel a burning,” Connell recalls. “It was like I was laying on hot coals.” Over the next few weeks, while she was watched constantly by a nurse, her blood, urine and feces were tested for signs of kidney damage.

Frightened and painfully shy, Connell never asked what she had been injected with and was never told. Now, 50 years later, she finally has an answer and compensation from the very institution that so casually violated her rights: the U.S. government. According to thousands of classified documents released since 1994 by former Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary, as many as 20,000 people, including prisoners, mentally disabled children and pregnant women, were subjected to experiments between 1944 and 1974 to test the effects of radiation exposure. “People were used as human guinea pigs,” says Dr. Karl Morgan, 89, a former government radiation protection officer who opposed the experiments in the 1950s. “It was a terrible situation.”

Connell, 75, is the only survivor among the 12 known patients who were injected with either uranium or plutonium at Strong Memorial in the 1940s as part of the medical side of the Manhattan Project—the clandestine government atomic-research program. Whether the experiments contributed to the deaths of the others—some of whom survived into the 1980s—is not known, though lawyers claim that a number suffered from plutonium-induced diseases such as osteoporosis and liver and spleen impairment. But in December, Connell and heirs of the 11 other Rochester patients each received a $400,000 settlement from the government—and a belated apology. “I can never make it right,” said O’Leary, announcing the agreement. “This should never happen again.” Last month, President Clinton signed an order instituting safeguards against future abuses.

In their reports the Rochester doctors wrote that they had chosen patients who were terminally ill. “That was baloney” says one of Connell’s attorneys, Martin Freeman, “Mary Jeanne went in for nutritional problems. They chose people who they figured would be trusting.” That described Connell. The oldest of four children, she lived with her parents, Ray and Martha, on the 110-acre sheep farm where she was raised. “Jeanne liked [to do] things around the house,” says her brother Ray Jr., 73. “She didn’t have strength.” Iron and B-12 shots were tried before her family doctor admitted her to Strong Memorial for tests.

But what was to be a few days’ stay became almost a monthlong confinement. “They wouldn’t let me go anywhere alone,” Connell recalls, but she feared the doctors and their tests—”Once I forgot to go in the coded jar, and I thought they would kill me,” she says—and didn’t challenge their authority. “You didn’t ask questions in those days,” Connell says. “You trusted people.” Adds her sister Bernice, 71: “She just accepted it. That’s the way she is. Our parents had no idea.”

For their part the doctors, swept up in the urgency of the dawning atomic age, believed they were doing no harm, says Morgan. “They felt they needed the information and that was the only way they could get it.”

For decades after she was discharged, Connell says she suffered kidney pain, though a link with the tests has never been proven. For most of her adult life she lived quietly with her mother and father, working briefly at a jewelry factory and an electronics company. Eventually, Connell moved into a mobile home outside Rochester with her cat Tommy, subsisting on Social Security and a pension.

That anonymous existence ended in June 1995, when she read a newspaper article describing the experiments at Strong Memorial. “Everything came back to me,” she says. For the first time in her life, Connell contacted a lawyer and soon found herself at the heart of a suit against the government. “She gives life and breath to what happened,” says Freeman, who with lawyer Raymond Heslin represented the Rochester families.

Now Connell is enjoying her windfall in her own modest way, treating herself only to the luxury of a new mobile home. “She’s a very shy, retiring person,” says Jerry Mousso, whose uncle John was among the victims. “Everybody admired her for having the courage to stand up and go public.”

ANNE-MARIE O’NEILL

MARIA EFTIMIADES in Rochester and JANE PODESTA in Washington

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