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Biomedicine in the Atomic Age: The U.S. AEC's Radioisotope Distribution Program

The widespread adoption of radioisotopes as tools in biomedical research was one of the major consequences of the "physicists' war" for postwar life science.
When Nov 03, 2003
from 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Where 102 Weaver Building, University Park, PA 16802
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Angela Creager  Angela Creager

Asscociate Professor of History of Science, Princeton University

Angela N.H. Creager (Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley, 1991) specializes in the history of the modern life sciences. She is author of several articles on the history of biochemistry and molecular biology and one book, The Life of a Virus: Tobacco Mosaic Virus as an Experimental Model, 1930-1965 (Chicago, 2002). She is currently studying the effects of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's radioisotope distribution program on biological and medical research after World War II. Her other interests include the relationship of feminism to modern science and historical interactions between the physical and biological sciences.

Biomedicine in the Atomic Age: The U.S. AEC's Radioisotope Distribution Program

The widespread adoption of radioisotopes as tools in biomedical research was one of the major consequences of the "physicists' war" for postwar life science. The development of a formal infrastructure equipping scientists with radioisotopic tracers was intimately related to the atomic bomb and its political ramifications: In 1946, the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) began producing and distributing radioisotopes as a means of promoting the peaceful benefits of the atom. My paper will provide a brief political history of the establishment of the AEC's isotope distribution program and the debates it sparked (including whether non-American researchers should be eligible to receive the isotopes). Large-scale radioisotope production for the bomb project took place in east Tennessee at Plant X-10; this site was rechristened Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1948, the center for the AEC's radioisotope distribution program. From 1946 to 1955, the AEC sent out nearly 64,000 shipments of radioactive materials to research laboratories, companies, and clinics. The rapid growth in biomedical utilization of radioisotopes stimulated new areas of experimentation in existing fields, such as physiology and biochemistry, as well as in emerging fields such as molecular biology. Radioisotopes were also employed by field scientists (most prominently ecologists) during the same years they became routine elements of laboratory research. The consumption of radioisotopes by scientists and physicians was strongly promoted by the AEC, but not without regulation; access remained entangled with questions of national security, especially for researchers outside the U.S.