An ABCC home-visiting nurse, far left, takes a blood sample from a woman, who survived the bombing, in her home in Hiroshima, Japan in 1948. Image: McGovern Historical Center, Texas Medical Center Library (photographer unknown)

70 Years On: Researchers Archive the Longest-Running Study of A-Bomb Survivors

In his 20s, US geneticist William Jack Schull joined a study to examine the effects of radiation on atomic bomb survivors. Now 93, he wants to share his experiences with the world.

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Aug 6 2015, 1:35pm

An ABCC home-visiting nurse, far left, takes a blood sample from a woman, who survived the bombing, in her home in Hiroshima, Japan in 1948. Image: McGovern Historical Center, Texas Medical Center Library (photographer unknown)

In 1949, four years after the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American geneticist William Jack Schull travelled to Japan to join a study examining the effects of ionizing radiation on A-bomb survivors. Little did he expect that 68 years later, he would still be associated with the same study. He is now working to share his memories by collating a digital archive based on his time in Japan.

"I think it's fair to say that from the age of 23 onwards, my life has been dominated more by what's going on in Japan than by what's going on in the US," Schull, now 93 years old, told me over Skype.

Schull's infectious grin and unfaltering memory belie his age, but not his experience. Back in 1949, he had just obtained his doctorate in genetics when he turned down a teaching position at McGill University in Canada. He opted instead to join a team of US physicians and geneticists at the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) in Hiroshima, Japan.

"It was serendipity that I left for Japan," said Schull, noting that he was initially drawn by the prestige of the study as well as a desire to understand Japan better. "During the war, I had fought in the Pacific, so I was aware of the Japanese troops [...] and I always had the desire to see them in their own country rather than in a foreign one."

US nurse Louise Cavagnaro, far left, looks on during an examination in the physical examination room in Kure, Japan in 1948. Image: McGovern Historical Center, Texas Medical Center Library (photographer unknown)

The ABCC was established by the US government in 1947 in occupied Japan in order to conduct genetic, health, and life span surveys on the survivors of the 1945 atomic bomb blasts, "Little Boy" and "Fat Man," in Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9) respectively. The ABCC was turned into the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) in 1975, but the research conducted under its auspices is the longest-running study to examine the effects of ionizing radiation on A-bomb survivors.

"The studies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are and have been unique in many respects: They have been a large, long-term series of examinations of individuals exposed to a particular threat—ionizing radiation," Schull said. "Those people are being followed every other year, and have been since 1950—clinically and medically to see what might or might not happen."

Since 1949 to the present day, Schull has been involved in the study in various guises; first as the head of the genetics program at the ABCC, then as director, vice chairman, and chief of research at the RERF. As a self-described "squirrel by nature, who saves everything," he has also amassed a massive personal archive of diaries, letters, and photographs charting his own experiences at the ABCC.

"There were more than 64 lineal feet of records, and that was just measured in one dimension," he told me, chuckling. "You'd need a truck to transport all that."

William Jack Schull, circa 1949-1950s. Image: McGovern Historical Center, Texas Medical Center Library (photographer unknown)

Now Schull wants to bring his own accounts, and those of other staff who worked at the ABCC during the post-WWII decades, online, and has been collaborating with researchers in Japan to do so. The aim, said Philip Montgomery, an archivist at the Texas Medical Center Library where the ABCC staff's personal records are kept, is to allow easier access to the records. But above all, it is to provide Japanese online visitors a portal into a less institutionalized and more emotive archive of information, consisting of diaries, letters to friends and family, and personal photographs.

"It's important to make the information accessible not just to the Japanese, but the world."

"The material related to the ABCC is not readily available in Japan," Montgomery told me. He noted that while both the institutional and personal archives related to the ABCC in the US are currently open to the public, it is mostly researchers and scientists who sift through the materials. "People just don't know they exist [...] but it's important to make the information accessible not just to the Japanese, but the world."

The epidemiological and genetics studies conducted on A-bomb survivors and their children are known for providing "the primary basis for radiation health standards," according to a report in the a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. However, since their inception, the studies have been perceived negatively by some A-bomb survivors, who Schull said may not have been aware that the US physicians in Japan in the aftermath of the explosions were able to diagnose symptoms but forbidden by the Occupation to give treatment.

Such frustrations, said Schull and Montgomery, were shared by some US physicians who worked at the ABCC. Montgomery recalled a passage from ABCC hematology specialist William Maloney's diary. When Maloney is unable to treat a young Japanese boy with leukemia about the same age as his son, he writes that he is overcome with grief and has to leave the room.

"Dr Maloney rarely shows any emotion in photos, he actually has the same look on his face, which is pretty deadpan," said Montgomery. "But he was obviously feeling a lot of emotion about that."

The researchers believe that easier access to records of the ABCC will increase understanding about the studies, as well as help dispel any lingering prejudices.

Mothers and children in the ABCC reception area at Hijiyama, Hiroshima, Japan. Image: Taylor H. Grant, 1903-, Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission

A similar desire is shared in Japan, where Masahito Ando, a professor in archival sciences at Gakushuin University, has been heading up efforts to reveal the minutiae of the 68-year long study to the public since 2005. Ando and his team have so far digitized 140,000 objects from the ABCC's institutional collection—which is stored at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington DC. In contrast to the personal nature of the Texas Medical Center collection, these records contain official letters and information regarding the ABCC.

"The NAS had 124 boxes of administrative archives detailing the ABCC project," Kaori Maekawa, an archival scientist and collaborator from Ando's team who instigated the digitization process in 2009, told me.

Maekawa said these records included institutional documents with the names of personnel who had worked at the ABCC, budget details, and official correspondences between the Japanese and US government and local Japanese municipalities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though perhaps less riveting than the personal records collected by Shull, Maekawa explained that NAS records gave an important overview of how the ABCC worked as an organization.

Maekawa, who hails from Hiroshima, and whose relatives and acquaintances were affected by the atomic bombings, believes it is a priority to make all these records readily accessible to those who suffered the consequences. She explained that though the Japanese government had given the ABCC easy and continuous access to A-bomb survivors, they in return hadn't ever been been able to take full possession of the contents of these studies.

"It's ironic that Nagasaki and Hiroshima have a lot of information about the A-bomb survivors at the Peace Museum and in the universities," said Maekawa. "But information on ABCC activities aren't accessible for them in Hiroshima or Nagasaki [...] the activities were of direct interest to these people—the medical information belongs to them."

Image from MS 155 Hiroshima scrapbook. Image: McGovern Historical Center, Texas Medical Center Library (Photographer anonymous)

While the twin nuclear blasts that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have happened 70 years ago, patient privacy is also still a concern. Maekawa explained how the Japanese team meticulously went through the NAS's ABCC-related digital files one by one in order to determine which images could and could not be revealed.

"Some images detail a person's name, show them naked, or give details on how many kilometers they were away from the bomb, and the symptoms that they were suffering from," said Maekawa.

She explained that the revelation of such private details could cause unnecessary anguish to both A-bomb survivors or to second and third generation descendants.

For his part, Schull said he amassed his own archive over the decades in order to allow others an insight into the potential hazards of radiation, the experience of both the staff and Japanese people involved in the study, and the difficulties that could arise from being involved in a binational study.

"My life has been dominated more by what's going on in Japan than by what's going on in the US."

"We were dealing with changes over time; the attitudes, moral values, and contributions that could be made from the US and Japan over the years were different each year. The issues that I'm talking about require an understanding of how we as Americans interact with the Japanese and how they interact with us," he said.

"We've been trying to collect as many papers as possible on the supposition that that information will provide an insight into the ABCC and the RERF that you couldn't get by just looking at official documents," he added.

William Jack Schull in the archive stacks of the Texas Medical Center Library in Houston, Texas, July 2010. Image: Philip Montgomery

Schull has sent off letters to colleagues who worked at the ABCC, reminding them and their families of the historical value of their notes and photographs from that era, but admitted that he needed to ramp up his efforts.

"I already know of some instances where people who had substantial amounts of paper to leave died, and their children didn't know what to do with the papers so they ended up shredding them, and that's a loss to us," said Schull. "The objective is to try and forestall that."

The work to organize his personal archive continues. "My task now is to try and go through and identify as many people as I can remember," he said, referring to his ABCC colleagues. Luckily, the process of putting names to faces has been eased by technology, and Schull aims to get help from computer facial recognition programs.

But there's still one hiccup. "The recognition system gets confused with age changes, so it'll see someone with black hair and tight skin, and later on it'll see the same person with sagging skin and white hair. It has yet to understand the process of aging," said Schull.

"I was 23 back then, and the last time I went back to Japan was when I was 90, so I think that I've changed quite a bit in that time."