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Before the Bomb - book review

By Noel Wauchope - posted Monday, 9 November 2009

Where do we go, to find out about the radiological effects of atomic weapons?

We usually seek out the rather patchy and incomplete stories of the victims - those at the "receiving end" of bombing, at Hiroshima, or of the atomic tests of Nevada, of Mururoa, Montebello, Maralinga. These have been covered in several books.

But, how much was known about these radiological effects before the Bomb?


Here, at last, is the book that answers this question. And Paul Langley's book The Prediction of the Radiological Effects of Atomic Bombs From Knowledge Published Prior to August 1945 answers it with evidence in forensic detail, a plenitude of exact primary documentary evidence, including digital evidence available on the Internet.

This is also a book that raises questions: questions that matter very much right now. Today, World War II veterans, Pacific Islanders, Navajo people and Australian Aborigines seek acknowledgment and justice for their diseases from exposure to radiation. Iraqi doctors and communities, and US, Canadian and UK Gulf War veterans claim health damage from depleted uranium. Where is the truth?

Since the early 1940s, public knowledge of, and safety guidance on, the radiation effects of atomic weapons has relied on information from the US Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC also supplied radioisotopes for medicine: atoms for healing and atoms for killing. Can we, should we, rely on AEC's data, to give the public the whole truth?

The book is divided into two volumes. The first covers early medical nuclear research before 1943 and the way in which this knowledge was incorporated into military research from 1943 onwards. The second covers Hiroshima.

This book is extraordinarily well researched. More than half of its 186 pages consist of references, appendices and bibliography. Appendices include relevant tables, maps, graphics, photographs, and detailed explanations of research surveys.

From Langley's meticulous study, a disturbing story emerges. From the early 1930s scientists researched the medical uses of radioisotopes, which were produced by the cyclotron. The work of Dr Charles Pecher was particularly important. He developed a very effective palliative treatment for terminal cancer patients, by using radioactive Strontium 89. This medical research also showed how radioisotopes caused disease in the healthy.


This knowledge was taken up, for use in weaponry, by the US Military, in the Manhattan Project. From 1940, fission research proceeded in the military setting, under censorship. Dr Pecher's palliative treatment method was left in abeyance until 1993. Medical knowledge was incorporated, and indeed diverted, into the secret Manhattan Project. Dr J Hamilton suggested radio Strontium to be spread over enemy food and water supplies. Hamilton was contracted from 1942 to pursue the military use of uranium, even including plutonium.

In 1995, the US Department of Energy produced the Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. It states: "The first proposed military application of atomic energy was not nuclear weaponry but radiological warfare (RW) - the use of radioactive materials to produce injury"

The Manhattan Project, with Dr Hamilton's work, provided the way that multiple radiological harm could be delivered to the enemy using ordinary bombs. This plan preceded the development of the atomic bomb. Sir Mark Oliphant wrote: "In 1943 it was clear that fission products would be a very great [radiation] hazard - I was so horrified by the biological conclusions."

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This is a review of Before the Bomb: The Prediction of the Radiological Effects of Atomic Bombs From Knowledge Published Prior to August 1945 by Paul Langley. by Paul Langley. Port Willunga, South Australia. Copyright: 11 May 2009. ISBN: 978-0-646-51823-7

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About the Author

Noel Wauchope taught science before switching to nursing. She has several post-graduate qualifications, in health informatics, medical terminology and clinical coding. She is a long time anti-nuclear activist.

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