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Attitudes Toward Radiation in AEC's Biological & Medical Program

GOFMAN: But this was lost on people who came in to run the Atomic Energy Commission Biology and Medicine Program after the passage of McMahon's Atomic Energy Act. They brought in the whole troops from radiology from all over this country. These people all had this mindset that 200 to 400 [rads] of x ray or gamma rays can't hurt you. Poo-pooed it. Let me illustrate it for you. I don't know your community, but you've heard of the shoe-store fluoroscope, I'm sure. Did you ever see one?
GOURLEY: No, I haven't.
GOFMAN: Too young. The shoe-store fluoroscope: I know when I was kid in the '30s, I visited the shoe store and got fluoroscoped. The first scientific paper on the shoe-store fluoroscope was written in 1949. Why was it then? Because every goddamn hamlet in the United States, anywhere, had a fluoroscope in the shoe store. And nobody studied [it], nobody had the vaguest idea of what kind of dose you got to feet or anywhere else.

And so in the New England Journal of Medicine, back-to-back in 1949, are two papers: one, [Dr. Williams] on measurements he did on the fluoroscope in [about] a dozen shoe stores; and, the second paper was by Louis Hempelmann, and Louis, as you know, came up from the Rochester[33] group of radiology. Louis Hempelmann said, "Well, we really don't know much about 200 R but we really [should] probably restrict the use of the fluoroscope." Here, they've been in every hamlet for 20 years, at least.

They had great solutions for how to handle this problem: Put a sign on the shoe-store fluoroscope, "Do not do more than 3 examinations per day nor 12 per year to you, as a customer." What did you have to do to look into your feet, the bones in your feet? You press the button. That was the only control of this thing. So, 20 years after these things had been all over the country [they comment on safety]. Why [the long delay]? Because they didn't think any of these things mattered.

And they're the people who came in to lead the atomic energy scene. Shields Warren was doing pathology, Robert Stone, radiologist, Stafford Warren, radiologist, Stafford became a dean at UCLA. He's one of the early publishers on various methods of doing pelvimetry and other examinations when he was a radiologist.

I have to tell one thing: Stafford Warren was Robert's Stone's right hand in the Manhattan Project Medical Division. When we did that job for Oppenheimer of isolating that one milligram of plutonium from uranium, Stafford Warren announced he was coming to inspect our operations there and in Gilman Hall. He and a couple of others from the Biology and Medicine Project of the Manhattan Project came.

Here we were getting irradiated with lead in front of these big vats to try to give us some shielding. We were using up chemicals like crazy to process a ton of uranium nitrate. We had to use a lot of sodium acetate and sodium nitrate and [it] came in 5-pound cardboard casks. We emptied out a cardboard cask; we'd set it over the corner of the room.

Stafford Warren's report on our operation to the Manhattan Project [included] nothing about radiation hazard. They said, "They have these boxes stacked in one corner of room. Somebody could have one of these boxes fall on them." It would be like a cardboard hatbox falling; could not hurt you. That was his report! But that's a separate little vignette. So, of the whole cast of characters, Eugene Saenger, who's gotten a hell of a lot of bad rap.
GOURLEY: Why do you think he's gotten a bad rap?
GOFMAN: I think he deserved a bad rap. But most of them don't deserve a bad rap. I don't think Joe Hamilton was really an evil person. I don't [think] Louis Hempelmann was an evil person at all. In fact, he participated in some very good studies of [dose] reconstruction [for] some of the people who got early doses to the thymus gland and thyroid, [and then developed] cancer. Later, breast cancer occurring.

Now, there is a peculiarity about this; it's interesting how peoples' minds can be compartmentalized. Let me illustrate that. When 1946 broke on the scene, we had the Atomic Energy Commission set up [and in operation January 1, 1947]. (I like Shields Warren by the way, I thought very highly of him.) A question comes up, "Well, what are you saying, are you telling me that no radiation was harmful?" Yes, they did know that it was harmful, but in a crazy way.

In the 1920s, there were these women who were tipping their brushes [with their tongues], painting the [watch] dials [with radium], and they got most horrible bone necrosis and cancer of the bones (sarcomas). Harrison Martland wrote that up in 1928, so everybody in the medical world knew about this. Moreover, in two places in Europe where they mined silver and other metals also rich in uranium-one was in Germany and one was in Czechoslovakia-there had been a disease known for 300 years called mountain sickness. Turned out that in 1879, it was discovered that mountain sickness was lung cancer. In the 1920s and '30s, it was pretty well settled that the alpha particles from radon and the daughters[34] of radon were the cause of that lung cancer.

The interesting thing was [that] somehow, all these radiologists didn't relate the external use of the gamma rays and x rays. The gamma rays from radium and the x rays to these internal things caused by alpha particles. [It was] all radiation, but somehow they separated [one from the other in their minds]. So, I can understand, although it was part of a terrible misuse of the technology, doing whatever you want to do on anything new and not thinking about the long-term consequences. Somehow they just never related these two things.

You had the whole scene dominated by the people who'd come up through radiology. You know, if somebody in Tennessee gave somebody something, some iron experiments or calcium experiments, I can see these people saying, "Hey look, what are you making a fuss about, we used to give people 200 rad from the thymus [in] the chest."

I think if Ruth Faden[35] doesn't understand that, she's not going to understand the whole story. The story doesn't start in 1945. What started in 1945, however, was a different thing. That was an arrogance. I haven't got a good thing to say about the Atomic Energy Commission, at all. But for very distinct reasons, I don't want to go into that and not answer the questions you have in your mind.
GOURLEY: I don't know whether we should continue chronologically or-
GOFMAN: I was just going to say, I am not [an] antibomber, so I'm in trouble. The Department of Energy officials hate me, the nuclear industry hates me, and a good segment of the disarmament [movement], [be]cause I'm not a disarmer.

People talked, "What's Gofman's hidden agenda?" The trouble is, I don't have one. The last thing is that my hidden agenda is to get rid of nuclear weapons. Because I'm a bigger supporter of nuclear weapons than anybody in the Department of Energy, that I know. I really think they're important. They just think that they're a continuation of bureaucracy. But I just wanted to [say] that you'll hear bad things about me, such as, "Gofman thinks nuclear deterrence is important." And I do. I don't favor giving up our bombs. It's a real mixed-up picture.

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