Atomic Doctors: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age

  • Published

Atomic Doctors: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age by James L. Nolan, Jr. Harvard University Press, 2020, 294 pp.

In 2020 the age of nuclear weapons marked its 75th anniversary. In 1945 a team of scientists used the theories and discoveries of some of the greatest minds in scientific history to create the most powerful weapon ever devised by man. Few knew if they could, and there were questions about whether they should. As a result, government leaders cited speed and national security as priorities, and anything that could harm the program found itself under wraps.

In the middle of these concerns regarding the development, use, and employment of nuclear weapons were the medical doctors assigned to the secretive Manhattan Project. In Atomic Doctors, James L. Nolan, Jr., a sociologist at Williams College, tells the story of the involvement of the medical doctors in the project. The story focuses particularly on Dr. James F. Nolan, the author’s grandfather. This work is unique in that Nolan, Jr., had access to notes he found that his grandfather had written during that period.

The author balances the life story of his grandfather—a man he admired and loved—with the weighty ethical and moral questions the deployment of nuclear weapons presented. James F. Nolan, a trained radiological OB-GYN and a US Army Medical Corps captain, received orders to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943. Once there, Nolan was primarily engaged with the care and welfare of the scientists and their growing families. However, he also became involved with the program to develop nuclear weapons and was tasked with determining the potential health and safety risks of radiation. He saw firsthand the challenges of researching the consequences of radiation in the context of what could be ethically murky initiatives.

Nolan’s concerns, along with those of some of the other medical doctors, put him in the crosshairs of Gen Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project and a man not taken with those defying his wishes. Further, while Nolan was consulted for his medical area of expertise, many of his concerns and recommendations were ignored or outright dismissed. This response was especially painful when it came to the Trinity Test in Alamogordo, New Mexico, as residents within the projected radioactive fallout pattern were not warned or evacuated.  

Nolan, Jr., describes his grandfather’s life of service intertwined with the development, testing, and eventual deployment of the first atomic bomb. Subterfuge proves to be a key part of the story. He tells of how his grandfather gained access to many of the immediate postwar surveys about the radiological fallout from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also describes how Nolan was disguised as an artillery officer to board the USS Indianapolis and escort atomic weapon components to Tinian Island.

The author's description of the USS Indianapolis catastrophe is particularly symbolic. Four days after the materials were unloaded from the ship and the Indianapolis left Tinian, Japanese torpedoes sunk the ship. It was the worst naval sea disaster in US history. The tragic events of the sinking were followed by the US military going into a major cover-up mode, placing the blame on the surviving captain of the ship. The military failed to acknowledge the multitude of flaws from a larger perspective, including the lack of warning about Japanese submarines in the area and not looking for the ship for over a day after it sank.

The consideration of protecting leadership and the American image as reflected by the Indianapolis manifested itself in many ways. The initial findings that Dr. Nolan reported on from his initial visits to Hiroshima were downplayed and all but suppressed in the immediate aftermath of the war. Even with the outrage resulting from John Hersey’s reporting on the effects of radiation on Hiroshima survivors, the US held the line that the radiation wasn’t bad but that even if there were concerns, the delivery of the bomb saved more lives. The testing methods to further study the impacts of radiation on the human body defied all ethical standards. Nevertheless, those involved in the project were so singularly focused on further development and testing of these weapons and advancements that they subjugated all other concerns to the detriment of ethical and other considerations.

A reader can take many themes from this work. One is the apprehension about the development and use of nuclear weapons. The 75th anniversary of the use of the bombs on Japan revisited many of these questions. Additionally, there are the issues of leadership and individuals with a singular focus disregarding ethics versus doing the right thing. Doing only what needs to be done to succeed is not just related to nuclear weapons. That mindset can be seen in many situations, past and present. That the military acted to deal with the medical concerns about radiation only when faced with legal pressure or loss of face is also an all too modern concept for not just the military but society.

Ultimately, the junior Nolan cannot quite condemn the actions of his grandfather and does his best to put him in the best light. Yet he cannot ignore the flaws and failings of the early nuclear program. While the program did much to defend and promote US power, it also exposed many of the US’s own people and others to risks and dangers that they did not understand and that the US did not help to mitigate. There is much for a reader to take away from the book regarding history and ethics. It sparks many questions in those areas, which would have value in academic and other settings.

Lt Col Scott C. Martin, USAF


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."