Atomic Doctors: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age
By James L. Nolan Jr.
Harvard University Press, 2020, 304 pp.
The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster That Launched the War on Cancer
By Jennet Conant
Norton, 2020, 400 pp.
Two books describe how American doctors became connected to troubling events during World War II that raised thorny moral issues around medicine and war. Nolan’s grandfather, the doctor James Nolan, was an early recruit to the medical team at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. He accompanied the first atomic bomb in its transport to the Pacific for use against Japan and visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the war to prepare reports on the medical effects of the bombing. Although Nolan was distressed by what he saw in Japan, his grandson seems disappointed that there is little evidence of his grandfather opposing either the bomb’s use or U.S. efforts to underplay the bomb’s radio- logical effects. The book usefully dwells on the harm caused by the refusal to acknowledge these risks, regardless of who faced them. The U.S. Navy, for instance, too readily exposed American servicemen to harmful radiation after the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests of 1946.
Conant tells the tale of Stewart Alexander, a specialist in the effects of chemical weapons. Alexander was part of General Dwight Eisenhower’s staff in Italy when he investigated in early 1943 the disturbing consequences of a German strike against Allied ships in the Italian port of Bari. Many of those rescued from the stricken ships succumbed to an illness that Alexander determined was caused by mustard gas. The gas had come from the Allies’ own munitions; it was being delivered to the front for potential use against the Germans. Alexander worked hard to establish the truth of the incident despite the attempts of political leaders, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to keep it secret. Conant finds a silver lining in the story. Alexander’s investigations led him to write a meticulous report on how the chemical effects of the poison could treat some cancers, which helped scientists develop more effective chemotherapy drugs.