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

While promoting the beneficial uses of radiation, the government also wished to continue and expand research on its harmful effects. Three days after the destruction of Hiroshima, Robert Stone wrote two letters to Stafford Warren's deputy, and Stone's former student, Hymer Friedell. The first expressed hope that the contribution of medical researchers could now be made public, so that people would know what they had done during the war.[57] The second letter described Stone's "mixed feelings" at the success that had been achieved and his fear that the lingering effects of radiation from the bomb had been underestimated: "I could hardly believe my eyes," Stone wrote, "when I saw a series of news releases said to be quoting Oppenheimer, and giving the impression that there is no radioactive hazard. Apparently all things are relative."[58]

Friedell and other researchers, including Stafford Warren and Shields Warren, soon traveled to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to begin what became an extensive research program on survivors. The data from that project quickly became and still remain the essential source of information on the long-term effects of radiation on populations of human beings. It was not long, however, before there were additional real-life data on the bomb, from postwar atomic tests. In 1946, the United States undertook the first peacetime nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Operation Crossroads, conducted before journalists and VIPs from around the world, was intended to test the ability of a flotilla of unmanned ships to withstand the blast. Since most of the ships remained afloat, the Navy declared Crossroads a triumph.[59]

Behind the scenes, however, Crossroads medical director Stafford Warren expressed horror at the level of contamination on the ships due to the underwater atomic blast.[60] When the ships returned to the West Coast from the Pacific, they were extensively studied to assess the damage and contamination from the atomic bombs. The government created the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL) to study the effects of atomic bombs on ships and to design ways to protect them. "Crossroads," according to an NRDL history, "left no doubt that man was faced with the necessity for coping with strange and unprecedented problems for which no solutions were available."[61]

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it now seemed, were only the beginning, not the end, of human exposure to bomb-produced radiation. As Crossroads confirmed with the lingering problem of contaminated ships, what the bomb did not obliterate it might still damage by radiation over the course of days or years. It was no longer enough to know about the effects of radioactive materials on American nuclear weapons workers; now there was the urgent need to understand the effects on American soldiers, sailors, and even citizens as well.

Largely invisible to the public, an ad hoc bureaucracy sprang up to address the medical and radiation research problems of atomic warfare. This bureaucracy brought together former wartime radiation researchers, who were joined by junior colleagues, to advise, and participate in, the government's growing radiation research program. Other, already established groups--such as the AEC's Division of Biology and Medicine and its advisory committee--also had important places in the new network.

Beyond considering fallout from the testing of atomic bombs, these groups also looked at how radiation itself might be used as a weapon. During the war, scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer had speculated on the possibility that fission products (radioactive materials produced by the bomb or by reactors) could be dispersed in the air and on the ground to kill or incapacitate the enemy. In 1946, the widespread contamination of ships at Crossroads by radioactive mist gave dramatic evidence of the potential of so-called radiological warfare, or RW. In 1947, the military created a committee of experts to study the problem. The following year, a blue-ribbon panel of physicians and physicists looked at the prospects, both offensive and defensive, of what the Pentagon termed "Rad War." The work of these panels would lead to dozens of intentional releases of radiation into the environment at the Army's Dugway, Utah, testing grounds from the late 1940s to the early 1950s. The very fact that the government was engaged in RW tests was a secret. Indeed, the records of the RW program--including, as we shall see in chapter 11, the debate on what the public should be told about the program--would remain largely secret for almost fifty years.

In 1949, a military program to build a nuclear-powered airplane led to a set of proposed human radiation experiments. The NEPA (Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft) program had its origins in 1946 as a venture that included the Manhattan Project's Oak Ridge site, the military, and private aircraft manufacturers. Robert Stone, as we shall see in chapter 8, was a leading proponent of experiments involving healthy volunteers, as a key to answering questions about the radiation hazard faced by the crew of the proposed airplane.

The NEPA and RW groups considered important, but still discrete, projects. Where did the "big picture" discussions take place? The Advisory Committee has pieced together the records of the Armed Forces Medical Policy Council, the Committee on Medical Sciences, and the Joint Panel on the Medical Aspects of Atomic Warfare.[62] These three Defense Department groups, all chaired by civilian doctors, guided the government on both the broad subject of military-related biomedical research and the new and special problems posed by atomic warfare.

If the surviving records are an indication, from its creation in 1949 to its evident demise with the reorganization of the Defense Department in 1953, the Joint Panel quickly became the hub of atomic warfare-related biomedical research. The Joint Panel gathered information about relevant research from all corners of the government, provided guidance for Defense Department programs, and reviewed and coordinated policy in the matter of human experimentation using atomic energy.

By charter, the group was to be headed by a civilian. Harvard's Dr. Joseph Aub, a long-standing member of the Boston-based medical research community who had worked with Robley Evans on the study of the radium dial painters and had also studied lead toxicity, served as chair. Those who served with Aub included Evans, Hymer Friedell, and Louis Hempelmann, Oppenheimer's Manhattan Project medical aide. Other government participants came from the AEC, the Public Health Service, the National Institutes of Health, the Veterans Administration, and the CIA. (The charter provided that the Joint Panel should collect information on relevant research conducted abroad, which the CIA evidently provided.)[63]

This bureaucracy provided the venue for secret discussions that linked the arts of healing and war in ways that had little precedent. At one and the same time, for example, doctors counseled the military about the radiation risk to troops at the site of atomic bomb tests, advised on the need for research on the "psychology of panic" at such bomb tests, and debated the need for rules to govern atomic warfare-related experimentation. (See chapter 10.)

The records of the Joint Panel show that, during the height of the Cold War, the resources of civilian agencies were part of the mobilization of resources to serve national security interests. For example, Dr. Howard Andrews, trained as a physicist, was the National Institutes of Health's representative to the Joint Panel, and in the 1950s he worked with the DOD and the AEC in monitoring safety measures and measuring fallout from nuclear tests.[64]

In 1950 President Truman ordered federal agencies, including the Public Health Service and NIH, to focus their resources on activities that would benefit national security needs. On paper, at least, PHS and NIH policymakers sought to direct resources to questions of radiation injury, civil defense, and worker health and safety.[65] For example, a 1952 internal planning memo explained that NIH "will not wait for formal requests by the armed forces . . . to undertake research which NIH staff knows to be of urgent military and civilian defense significance. Limited selective conversion of research to work directly related to biological warfare, shock, radiation injury and thermal burns will begin immediately. . . ."[66] The fragmentary surviving documentation, however, does not show the extent to which PHS- and NIH-funded researchers actually redirected their investigations or merely recast the purpose of ongoing work.

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