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Suffering Made Real: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima (review)

From: Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Volume 71, Number 1, Spring 1997
pp. 179-180 | 10.1353/bhm.1997.0030

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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 71.1 (1997) 179-180

Book Review

Suffering Made Real: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima

M. Susan Lindee. Suffering Made Real: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. xi + 287 pp. Ill. $29.95.

On 6 August 1945 the Enola Gay , an American B-29, dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. As historian M. Susan Lindee notes, the survivors of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki, where a second atomic bomb was detonated on
9 August, were the "first true residents of the atomic age" (p. 4). Those who experienced the bombings ( hibakusha , meaning survivors or exposed ones) were quickly seen as vital to American interests, critical to understanding the biological implications of the new atomic battlefield. In this ground-breaking book, Lindee examines the translation of survivors' experiences into data points for the construction of scientific knowledge about the genetic effects of radiation on human beings. Using the work of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) established by President Truman in 1946, Lindee analyzes the complex process by which data related to the bombing were identified, collected, and interpreted. She explores the constraints -- social, intellectual, and political -- that influenced both the interpretive process and the contexts of public presentation and reception of the ABCC's construction of the biological realities of atomic weapons in the first decade of the Cold War.

Lindee's book will deservedly attract a wide readership. For historians of medicine, it offers an exquisitely nuanced depiction of "colonial" medical research. After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, several American medical teams converged on the bombed cities to study how and why people died in the wake of an atomic assault. Arriving in Japan amid the American military occupation, these teams encountered Japanese physicians already monitoring the hibakusha, and experienced, in addition to the political fallout, the problems of language and cultural distance. Lindee analyzes, for example, the tensions that developed in the ABCC genetics study between American investigators and Japanese midwives whose cooperation was essential for reports of birth abnormalities and deaths, and for access to autopsies. One of the greatest sources of tension for the ABCC was their policy of nontreatment of radiation survivors. The author documents the political context of the decision not to offer medical care to survivors (for fear that it would be seen as atonement for the use of the bomb) and the Japanese resentment of the "guinea pig" status of survivors. It is perhaps ironic in a book that advances the claim that it was the survivors themselves who shaped the scientific work of the ABCC that the survivors are themselves unavailable for comment about the no-treatment policy. The one notable silence in the book is the survivors' perception of their own role as research subjects for the ABCC.

Lindee has provided a valuable study of the construction of medical knowledge during the early years of the Cold War. Her book is especially welcome in the wake of the continuing contest over the meaning of and responsibility for the atomic age, as evidenced by the decision of the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in 1995 to jettison a planned exhibit on the Enola Gay and the decision to use the bomb.

Susan E. Lederer
Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine

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