BOX 5Studies of Atomic Bomb Survivors

The world was introduced to the atomic age in 1945 when bombs devastated Hiroshima and, a few days later, Nagasaki, Japan. Japanese scientists soon arrived and began to investigate and assess the physical damage, deaths, and injuries among inhabitants and the effects on survivors. The occupation forces dispatched their own teams, which combined with the Japanese on the scene to form a joint commission to investigate the effects of the bombings. Impressed with the obvious magnitude of this task and the time that would be required to complete it, President Truman, in a November 1946 executive order, asked the National Academy of Sciences to undertake a program, funded by the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy), to study the long-range biological and medical effects of the atomic bomb on man. Thus was born the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC). Guided by existing information from studies of mice about the health and genetic effects of radiation, James V. Neel inaugurated large-scale genetic studies of the offspring of survivors. Other investigators sent by the Academy did not, however, recognize that a strong, long-term, epidemiologic effort would be needed; hence, no comprehensive plan was implemented. The major early emphasis was on pathology and clinical medicine. Problems soon became apparent, and in 1955, Dr. R. Keith Cannan, chairman of the NRC Division of Medical Sciences, formed a team led by Dr. Thomas Francis, professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, to produce an objective, scientific appraisal of the ABCC program. This appraisal resulted in a plan for a long-term epidemiologic study of the survivors. One of the needs identified by the Francis group was collaboration by strong U.S. departments that would assist in recruiting scientists, provide scientific direction, and lend prestige to the program. The Yale and University of California at Los Angeles medical schools agreed to sponsor medical and pathology efforts, respectively and the Medical Follow-up Agency (MFUA) assumed responsibility for statistics (there was not yet a department of epidemiology at ABCC). For many years, MFUA personnel rotated between Washington and Japan, and helped to recruit statistical staff. Later, an arrangement with the University of Washington greatly strengthened the program. In 1975, the ABCC was succeeded by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF). Under the auspices of this organization, epidemiologic research concerning the long-term health outcomes of survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their descendants, continues today. The association of the MFUA with the studies of the ABCC and subsequently the RERF, although in some ways a distraction from the studies of veterans, was on balance a very positive development. The research in Japan gave MFUA staff a degree of expertise and competence in studying the effects of ionizing radiation. These skills found expression in many other projects, such as studies of veterans who had participated in tests of nuclear weapons.

Selected Reference

Putnam, F. Hiroshima and Nagasaki revisited: The Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission and the Radiation Effects Research Foundation. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 37(4):515–545, 1994.

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