VA History: Atomic ResearchPosted: August 10, 2016
Seventy-one years ago the world’s first atomic bombs used for military purposes were dropped by the U.S. on Japan to facilitate an end to World War II. The first bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” using the uraninum-235 isotope was dropped on August 6, 1945 on Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, a second bomb using plutonium and nicknamed “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki. Both bombs had been built under the special “Manhattan Project” which officially began in 1942 under the U.S. Army. Six days later, on August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered. A formal signing of the surrender took place in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. Each bomb leveled areas four miles wide, killed and injured tens of thousands of men, women, and children, and ushered in a new era of exciting scientific possibilities tempered by fear from the new reality that they could annihilate all of mankind.
After the war, atomic research flourished worldwide and followed two major paths: development for use in warfare and development for peaceful purposes. Barely one year after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, the U.S. Congress enacted the Atomic Energy Act on August 1, 1946. The act established the Atomic Energy Commission, which became the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1974. An important component of the law authorized the use of atomic radioisotopes for biological and environmental research to benefit society. By the end of 1947, the Veterans Administration was among the first federal institutions to initiate an Atomic Medicine program.
In 1947, Dr. George Lyon, a naval medical officer involved with the Manhattan project during World War II and atomic testing at Bikini Island in the Pacific, became VA’s Special Assistant for Atomic Medicine and Chief of the Radioisotope Section. Dr. Lyon was an expert who was also appointed to the National Research Council’s Committee on Atomic Casualties which studied the effects of radiation on atomic bomb survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The initial purpose of VA’s Atomic Medicine program was to prepare for handling disability claims of veterans exposed to radiation during the military’s atomic bomb tests, but it evolved into a full research and clinical program. In 1947 the Atomic Energy Commission had licensed 25 institutions to receive isotopes, including six (6) for VA hospital laboratories at Framingham, MA; Bronx, NY; Cleveland, OH; Chicago, IL; Minneapolis, MN; and Los Angeles, CA. Dr. Rosalyn Yalow, who later received a Nobel Prize for her research in nuclear medicine, was among many interested scientists who flocked to VA after the war to work with this cutting-edge program.
By 1949, VA had established 12 radioisotope labs (out of 129 hospitals) and the number continued to grow. By 1965, 86 out of 168 hospitals had radioisotope laboratories. VA was the seedbed for medical innovation in that exciting new age of atomic medicine and the world at-large has benefited tremendously from its results. Radiation pharmacology to cure cancer and other diseases, CT scanners, nuclear pacemakers, DNA/genetic testing, and more were borne from research conducted by VA doctors, scientists, and inventors working in collaboration with medical schools or partners like the National Cancer Institute or National Research Council. Around 1971 the field became more formalized and has since been known as Nuclear Medicine. In October 1988 the Veterans Administration became the Department of Veterans Affairs and continues to be a leader in nuclear medicine.
Photo: Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission examining atomic bomb survivors in Japan, 1947, japanfocus.org.
story: VA Historian