by Philip Montgomery
Archivist and Head of the McGovern Historical Center
The “Chernobyl” miniseries on HBO has struck a chord with me, because the effects of radiation on large populations has long been one focus of collecting at the McGovern Historical Center.
Since the mid-1980s, the McGovern Historical Center has collected material related to the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), which studied the effects of radiation on the survivors of the atomic bombings Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Drs. Grant Taylor and William “Jack” Schull, both former high-level members of the ABCC, drove the creation of that collection. Many of the ABCCers were recruited to work in Texas Medical Center (TMC) institutions. When they began to retire, Drs. Grant and Taylor convinced the former ABCC staff to donate their papers to the TMC Library. That is why the ABCC collection at the TMC Library is one of the most significant ABCC collections in the world.
Now the McGovern is focusing on acquiring the records of another group of medical professionals from the TMC who were involved in studies related to the effects of industrial nuclear disasters and atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union in which Jack Schull provided scientific leadership and guidance.
Armin Weinberg, clinical professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, adjunct professor at Rice University and Faculty Affiliate, Texas A&M Health Science Center’s School of Public Health, is advising us on this project, which we are calling Radiation Effects and Events. He donated his papers that, in part, were accumulated during his work with the International Consortium on the Health Effects of Radiation. Dr. Weinberg helped to found the consortium in response to the Chernobyl nuclear accident and as a part of the State Department’s Project Sapphire effort that supported people and organizations in Kazakhstan dismantling nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union.
Other important donors and volunteers for this project are Sara Rozin, Boris Yoffe, Randall Wright, Pat Hercules, Elizabeth Vainrub and Teresa Hayes all of whom donated papers. In addition, there are other donors and patrons who are participating in the project.
The collection also includes papers from the Texas Hadassah Medical Research Foundation that along with Baylor College of Medicine and The Methodist Hospital hosted the first US international meeting addressing Chernobyl.
In future blogs, I will write about the various collections, since each one deserves a story of its own.
The Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred on April 26, 1986 in reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the city of Pripyat. The city is located in northern Ukraine in what was then a Soviet Socialist Republic. The city, which had a population of about 50,000 people, is now largely abandoned.
“Chernobyl,” the 5-episode mini-series, recently aired on HBO. The reviews have been positive with accolades from film critics and scientists, although the fictionalized version is weak on the medical and environmental aftereffects of the disaster, according to at least one expert.
Robert Peter Gale, a Visiting Professor of Hematology at the Imperial College London, spoke highly about the series in an article in the Cancerletter.com on May 17, 2019. However he pointed out one important weakness in the miniseries.
Gale said, “The series focuses predominately on events leading to the accident, the scientific, social and political environment in the Soviet Union at the time and, to a lesser degree, on immediate and long-term medical consequences. The series is strong on the former, but weaker on the later.”
The long-term medical and social consequence of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and the Chernobyl disaster is a natural focus of our Radiation Effects and Events collection. The McGovern Center is performing a vital service by compiling as much historical data as we can before those involved in the projects discard or lose their papers.