ACHRE Report


The Atomic Century

Before the Atomic Age: "Shadow Pictures," Radioisotopes, and the Beginnings of Human Radiation Experimentation

The Manhattan Project: A New and Secret World of Human Experimentation

The Atomic Energy Commission and Postwar Biomedical Radiation Research

The Transformation in Government - Sponsored Research

The Aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Emergence of the Cold War Radiation Research Bureaucracy

New Ethical Questions for Medical Researchers


The Basics of Radiation Science

What Is Ionizing Radiation?

What Is Radioactivity?

What Are Atomic Number and Atomic Weight?

Radioisotopes: What Are They and How Are They Made?

How Does Radiation Affect Humans?

How Do We Measure the Biological Effects of External Radiation?

How Do We Measure the Biological Effects of Internal Emitters?

How Do Scientists Determine the Long-Term Risks from Radiation?

The Atomic Energy Commission and Postwar Biomedical Radiation Research

On August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the most sensitive of secrets became a symbol for the ages. A week later, the bomb was the subject of a government report that revealed to the public the uses of plutonium and uranium.[32] Immediately, debate began over the future of atomic energy. Could it be controlled at the international level? Should it remain entirely under control of the military? What role would industry have in developing its potential? Although American policymakers failed to establish international control of the bomb, they succeeded in creating a national agency with responsibility for the domestic control of atomic energy.

The most divisive question in the creation of the new agency that would hold sway over the atom was the role of the military. Following congressional hearings, the Atomic Energy Commission was established by the 1946 McMahon Act, to be headed by five civilian commissioners. President Truman appointed David Lilienthal, former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, as the first chairman of the AEC, which took over responsibilities of the Manhattan Engineer District in January 1947.

Also in 1947, under the National Security Act, the armed services were put under the authority of the newly created National Military Establishment (NME), to be headed by the secretary of defense. In 1949 the National Security Act was amended, and the NME was transformed into an executive department--the Department of Defense.[33] The Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, which would coordinate the Defense Department's responsibilities in the area of nuclear weapons, became the military heir to the Manhattan Engineer District. The Military Liaison Committee was also established as an intermediary between the Atomic Energy Commission and the Defense Department; it was also to help set military requirements for the number and type of nuclear weapons needed by the armed services.

Even before the AEC officially assumed responsibility for the bomb from the Manhattan Project, the Interim Medical Advisory Committee, chaired by former Manhattan Project medical director Stafford Warren, began meeting to map out an ambitious postwar biomedical research program. Former Manhattan Project contractors proposed to resume the research that had been interrupted by the war and to continue wartime radiation effects studies upon human subjects.[34]

In May 1947, Lilienthal commissioned a blue-ribbon panel, the Medical Board of Review, that reported the following month on the agency's biomedical program. In strongly recommending a broad research and training program, the board found the need for research "both urgent and extensive." The need was "urgent because of the extraordinary danger of exposing living creatures to radioactivity. It is urgent because effective defensive measures (in the military sense) against radiant energy are not yet known." The board, pointing to the AEC's "absolute monopoly of new and important tools for research and important knowledge," noted the commensurate responsibilities--both to employees and others who could suffer from "its negligence or ignorance" and to the scientific world, with which it was obliged to "share its acquisitions . . . whenever security considerations permit."[35] In the fall of 1947, as recommended by the Medical Board of Review, the AEC created a Division of Biology and Medicine (DBM) to coordinate biomedical research involving atomic energy and an Advisory Committee for Biology and Medicine (ACBM), which reported directly to the AEC's chairman.[36]

Not surprisingly, the DBM and ACBM became gathering places for the luminaries of radiation science. The ACBM was headed by a Rockefeller Foundation official, Dr. Alan Gregg. It settled on Dr. Shields Warren, a Harvard-trained pathologist, to serve as the first chief of the DBM. Warren, as we shall see, would play a central role in developments related to radiation research and human experimentation. In the 1930s, focusing on cancer research, and influenced by the work of Hevesy and the pioneering radioisotope work being done in Berkeley and Boston, Warren turned to the question of the effects of radiation on animals and the treatment of acute leukemia, the "most hopeless . . . of tumors at that time." As the war neared, Warren enlisted in the Naval Reserve. He continued medical work for the Navy, turning down an invitation to join Stafford Warren (no relation) on "a project . . . that he couldn't tell me anything about [the Manhattan Project]."[37]

While most of the AEC's budget would be devoted to highly secret weapons development and related activities, the biomedical research program represented the commission's proud public face. Even before the AEC opened its doors, Manhattan Project officials and experts had laid the groundwork for a bold program to encourage the use of radioisotopes for scientific research, especially in medicine. This program was first presented to the broad public in a September 1946 article in the New York Times Magazine. The article began dramatically by describing the use of "radioactive salt" to measure circulation in a crushed leg, so that a decision on whether to amputate below or above the knee could be made.[38]

By November 1946, the isotope distribution program was well under way, with more than 200 requests approved, about half of which were designated for "human uses." From the beginning, the AEC's Isotope Division at Oak Ridge had in its program director, Paul Aebersold, a veritable Johnny Appleseed for radioelements.[39] In presentations before the public and to researchers, Aebersold, dubbed "Mr. Isotope," touted the simplicity and low cost with which scientists would be provided with radioisotopes: "The materials and services are made available . . . with a minimum of red tape and under conditions which encourage their use."[40] At an international cancer conference in St. Louis in 1947, the AEC announced that it would make radioisotopes available without cost for cancer research and experimental cancer treatment. This, Shields Warren later recalled, had a "tremendous effect" and "led to a revolution in the type of work done in this field."[41]

To AEC administrators, Aebersold emphasized the benefits to the AEC's public image: "Much of the Commission's success is judged by the public and scientists . . . on its willingness to carry out a wide and liberal policy on the distribution of materials, information, and services," he wrote in a memo to the AEC's general manager.[42]

The AEC biomedical program as a whole also provided for funding of cancer research centers, research equipment, and numerous other research projects. Here, too, were advances that would save many lives. Before the war, radiotherapy had reached a plateau, limited by the cost of radium and the inability of the machines of the time to focus radiation precisely on tumors to the exclusion of surrounding healthy tissue. AEC facilities inherited from the Manhattan Project could produce radioactive cobalt, a cheaper substitute for radium. As well, the AEC's "teletherapy" program funded the development of new equipment capable of producing precisely focused high-energy beams.[43]

The AEC's highly publicized peacetime medical program was not immune to the pressures of the Cold War political climate. Even the lives of young researchers in the AEC Fellowship Program conducting nonclassified research were subject to Federal Bureau of Investigation review despite protests from commission members. Congressionally mandated Cold War requirements such as loyalty oaths and noncommunist affidavits, Chairman Lilienthal declared, would have a chilling effect on scientific discussion and could damage the AEC's ability to recruit a new generation of scientists.[44] The reach of the law, the Advisory Committee for Biology and Medicine agreed, was like a "blighting hand; for thoughtful men now know how political domination can distort free inquiry into a malignant servant of expediency and authoritarian abstraction."[45] Nonetheless, the AEC accepted the congressional conditions for its fellowship program and determined to seek the program's expansion.[46]

The AEC's direct promotional efforts were multiplied by the success of Aebersold and his colleagues in carrying the message to other government agencies, as well as to industry and private researchers. This success led, in turn, to new programs.

In August 1947, General Groves urged Major General Paul Hawley, the director of the medical programs of the Veterans Administration, to address medical problems related to the military's use of atomic energy. Soon thereafter, Hawley appointed an advisory committee, manned by Stafford Warren and other medical researchers. The advisers recommended that the VA create both a "publicized" program to promote the use of radioisotopes in research and a "confidential" program to deal with potential liability claims from veterans exposed to radiation hazards.[47] The "publicized" program soon mushroomed, with Stafford Warren, Shields Warren, and Hymer Friedell among the key advisers. By 1974, according to VA reports, more than 2,000 human radiation experiments would be performed at VA facilities,[48] many of which would work in tandem with neighboring medical schools, such as the relationship between the UCLA medical school, where Stafford Warren was now dean, and the Wadsworth (West Los Angeles) VA Hospital.

While the AEC's weapons-related work would continue to be cloaked in secrecy, the isotope program was used by researchers in all corners of the land to achieve new scientific understanding and help create new diagnostic and therapeutic tools. It was, however, only a small part of an enormous institution. By 1951 the AEC would employ 60,000 people, all but 5,000 through contractors. Its land would encompass 2,800 square miles, an area equal to Rhode Island and Delaware combined. In addition to research centers throughout the United States, its operations "extend[ed] from the ore fields of the Belgian Congo and the Arctic region of Canada to the weapons proving ground at Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific and the medical projects studying the after-effects of atomic bombing in . . . Japan."[49] The Isotope Division, however, would employ only about fifty people and, when reactor production time was accounted for, occupy only a fraction of its budget and resources.[50]

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