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Oral Histories

Biochemist John Randolph Totter, Ph.D.


Short Biography

Early Teaching and Basic Research in Biochemistry (1935-50)

Nucleic Acid and Leukemia Research at Oak Ridge (1952-56)

Participation in AEC Biochemistry Training in South America (1958-60)

The Division of Biology and Medicine's Research Focus on Radiation Effects

Early Leadership of the AEC's Division of Biology and Medicine (1956-60s)

Attempts to Prevent AEC's Biologists From Thwarting Nuclear Power

Radium Oversight Becomes a Political Football Between AEC and the Public Health Service

Controversy Over Low-Level Radiation, Iodine From Fallout

Livermore Biomedical Division; Conflicts With John Gofman (1962-72)

Origins of AEC-Funded Research Programs

Advisory Committee on Isotopes for Human Use

The Division of Biology and Medicine's Research Goals; Bone Marrow Transplants at Oak Ridge

The Military's Animal Research on High-Dose Radiation

AEC Involvement in International Research

The AEC's Environmental and Ecological Research

Suspension of Proposed Plowshare Projects (Circa 1963)

AEC Program Approval Coordination

Fishing (for Foreign Secrets) Where the Ducks Are

Radiation Research on Penitentiary Inmates in Washington and Oregon (1963-73)

Pre-World War II, Nongovernmental Radiation Research

Medical Follow-Up on Occupational Radiation Exposure

Follow-Up of Subjects From Plutonium Injection Experiments

Low-Level Radiation and the "Hot Particle" Controversy

Support for Animal Studies

Early and Recent Research Into Indirect Effects of Radiation and Cell Repair Mechanisms

Ethics of Government Radiation Research

Research Interests of Commissioners Seaborg and Schlesinger Compared

Rise and Fall of AEC Support for Cancer Research Hospitals (1948-74)

Public Misperceptions About Radiation and Cancer; Underuse of Established Biomedical Facilities; and Funding of Environmental Cleanup vs. Biomedical Research

1-During World War II, the Manhattan Project had built a vast complex of highly classified facilities in and near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to process uranium for use in atomic bombs. The Atomic Energy Commission assumed control of these facilities upon its creation and, today, they belong to the Department of Energy.

2-any of a class of organic compounds that are the building blocks from which proteins are constructed

3-the rate at which chemical processes take place in the body

4-For a history of ORNL, see ORAU From the Beginning, written by William G. Pollard with Gould A. Andrews, Marshall Brucer, et al., which was published by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, Oak Ridge Tennessee, 1980.

5-Dr. Alexander Hollaender was the director of the Biology Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

6-a radioactive isotope of carbon having a half-life of about 5,730 years: widely used in the dating of organic materials; also called radiocarbon

7-the count of the number of white blood cells in a specific volume of blood

8-occurring while another disease is in progress

9-a physician who studies the study of the origin, nature, and course of diseases

10-any of several cancers of the bone marrow characterized by an abnormal increase of white blood cells in the tissues, resulting in anemia, increased susceptibility to infection, and impaired blood clotting

11-the soft, fatty, vascular tissue in the cavities of bones; it is a major site of blood-cell production.

12-established in 1946 by the Manhattan Engineer District and operated under a Manhattan Project (and later Atomic Energy Commission) contract. ORINS was responsible for training physicians and researchers in the safe handling of radioisotopes and in the development of isotope applications in medicine. In addition, ORINS was responsible for selecting both students and established scientists for fellowships and other temporary research assignments. Today, the educational and training functions of ORINS are carried out by its successor, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).

13-director of ORINS; succeeded by Gould Andrews. Brucer died in 1994.

14-Shields Warren, M.D., was Chief Pathologist at New England Deaconess Hospital and Professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School. He joined the U.S. Navy Medical Department in 1939 and wrote with others on what was then known about radiation during World War II. Dr. Warren served on the first U.S. team to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki after they were bombed with atomic weapons and was involved in creating what became the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. He was the first director of the AEC's Division of Biology and Medicine and, later, established his own cancer research institute at New England Deaconess Hospital. See "Recollections of Shields Warren" in DOE/EH-0471, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Radiologist Henry I. Kohn, M.D., Ph.D. (June 1995).

15-predecessor agency to the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); established January 1, 1947

16-Founded in 1913, the Rockefeller Foundation directs its grants to three areas. One is International Science-Based Development, focusing on the developing world with emphasis on the environment, agriculture, health, and population sciences. The other areas are Arts and Humanities and Equal Opportunity.

17-radioactive tags on biomolecules, used to study a biological, chemical, or physical system

18-a program initiated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to identify and demonstrate uses for peaceful nuclear explosives (PNEs), such as civil engineering projects. For a variety of reasons, no such peaceful nuclear explosions ever were conducted by the United States as anything other than tests. Before its breakup, the Soviet Union reportedly used PNEs in several large-scale civil works projects.

19-a radioactive isotope of hydrogen having an atomic weight of three. The heaviest isotope of the element hydrogen, tritium gas is used in modern nuclear weapons.

20-equipment used to count the rate of radiation emissions from radionuclides inside a subject's body, using radiation detection instruments or a whole-body counter

21-director of the AEC's Division of Biology and Medicine from 1963 to 1967

22-Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago; operated by the University of Chicago

23-shorthand for Division of Biology and Medicine; the term is found again when Totter discusses the like-named division at Los Alamos.

24-Project Sunshine was initiated by the AEC in response to the urgent need to better understand the global distribution of fallout from atomic weapons testing and its potential adverse effects in people.

25-a long-range, high-altitude, strategic reconnaissance aircraft with a crew of one pilot that was developed in secret for the Central Intelligence Agency by the Lockheed Corporation (now Lockheed Martin). U-2s conducted overflights of the Soviet Union from 1956 until 1960, when one was shot down and its pilot captured deep inside the Soviet Union. From the beginning, air sampling for fallout to monitor the Soviet nuclear weapons program was an important mission for the U-2. Long after its penetrations of Soviet airspace ended, the U-2 continued to be used on high-altitude flights to sample for fallout from Soviet and Chinese nuclear weapons tests.

26-the conceptual use of fission-product radiation to kill enemy troops

27-the National Laboratory near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where nuclear bombs were assembled before and during the Cold War; operated by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy

28-From 1944 to 1962, Los Alamos conducted 254 open-air implosion physics tests in neighboring Bayo Canyon. The purpose of the program was to test weapons designs using conventional high explosives and radioactive lanthanum (RaLa), a short-lived but intense radiation source. Tests were performed specifically to diagnose material motion and compression through high-speed x-ray photographs of the earliest moments of the implosion. The sources involved contained quantities ranging from around one hundred to several thousand curies of lanthanum-140.

29-a nuclear power generating station 10 miles from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, owned and operated by General Public Utilities, Incorporated. On March 28, 1979, a combination of system failure and human error led to a partial meltdown in one of the station's two 1,000-megawatt pressurized water reactors. As one consequence, radioactivity was vented into the air. The event at Three Mile Island remains the most significant nuclear power plant accident to have occurred in the United States.

30-chiefly in the Marshall Islands, a group of 34 atolls in the west central Pacific where the United States performed atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons in the 1950s. Since 1986 the Marshall Islands have been a self-governing area associated with the United States.

31-the location where most nuclear weapon tests within the Continental United States were conducted

32-the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York

33-Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago, Illinois

34-the first individual to be appointed on personal merit rather than selection based on other factors, such as personal friendship or individual politics

35-Dr. James Schlesinger was appointed by President Richard Nixon to be Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and, in the early '70s, led its restructuring into the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA).

36-Dr. Totter is referring to John A. McCone, who later headed the Central Intelligence Agency under President John F. Kennedy's Administration.

37-radon-222, a naturally occurring, heavy, radioactive, gaseous element formed by the disintegration of radium-226

38-sand residues from the milling of uranium ores

39-isotopes formed by radioactive decay of another isotope

40-John Gofman, a physician and biophysicist, held that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. His public views and outspoken style brought him into frequent conflict with Totter and the AEC. For Gofman's account of these conflicts, see "The Controversy Over Nuclear-Armed Antiballistic Missiles (1969)" in DOE/EH-0457, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Dr. John W. Gofman, M.D. (June 1995).

41-Tamplin worked with Gofman in the Biomedical Department of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, where he gathered international literature on the effects of nuclear fallout on animals and humans. Tamplin's close work with Gofman and involvement with the human radiation research community are discussed throughout the Gofman transcript.

42-Beta particles are electrons or positrons emitted from an atomic nucleus in beta decay.

43-Gamma rays are highly penetrating photons of high frequency, usually 1019 Hz or more, emitted by an atomic nucleus.

44-Dr. Harold Knapp worked in the AEC Division of Biology and Medicine's Fallout Studies Branch. Following up on assessment of sheep exposure to iodine-131, in September 1962 he submitted a report that concluded that aboveground nuclear weapons tests had produced radiation doses around the Nevada Test Site significantly higher than previously announced by the AEC. This brought him into conflict with Dr. Gordon Dunning, also of the Division of Biology and Medicine, who had taken the position that radiation from the Nevada Test Site was at safe levels. Dr. Charles Dunham convened a meeting of scientists to review Knapp's paper. For a participant's account of that meeting, see the section "Livermore Biomedical Department's Work on Fallout and Plowshares (1963–65)" in the Gofman transcript (op. cit.) In the early-1960s criminal trial referred to by Dr. Totter, Dr. Knapp's inquiries legally challenged the conviction and led to the release of three men. For his actions, Dr. Knapp received the Oliver Wendell Holmes Award of the American Civil Liberties Union. Source: Philip L. Fradkin; Fallout, an American Nuclear Tragedy; 1989; University of Arizona Press; Tucson; p. 192.

45-A WASH number paper was an official AEC research report widely distributed to libraries, usually dealing with nuclear health and safety.

46-For insight into discussions leading to establishing this laboratory from Dr. Gofman's perspective, see "Establishing Livermore Laboratory's Division of Biology and Medicine" and "Jack, all we want is the truth" in the Gofman transcript (DOE/EH-0457).

47-National Council on Radiation Protection. Although the words "and Measurements" later were appended to the name, the Council's initials remain NCRP.

48-Dunham left to take a position at the National Academy of Medicine.

49-Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies, established in 1946 by the Manhattan Engineer District and operated under a Manhattan Project (and later Atomic Energy Commission) contract. ORINS was responsible for training physicians and researchers in the safe handling of radioisotopes and in the development of isotope applications in medicine. In addition, ORINS was responsible for selecting both students and established scientists for fellowships and other temporary research assignments. Today, the educational and training functions of ORINS are carried out by its successor, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).

50-Dr. E. Donnall Thomas was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1990 for his pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation.

51-For a discussion of the ORINS bone-marrow transplant research, see DOE/EH-0453, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Pathologist Clarence Lushbaugh, M.D. (April 1995).

52-the Low-Exposure-Rate Total Body Irradiator (LETBI)

53-LD50/30 is the dose at which 50 percent of humans, within 30 days, will die.

54-For contrasting views on the medical ethics of the LETBI studies at Oak Ridge, see the oral history transcripts of Lushbaugh (DOE/EH-0453) and Karl Z. Morgan, Ph.D. (DOE/EH-0475, June 1995).

55-Dr. Helen Vodopick, M.D., was the Senior Clinician in Oncology Research at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities Medical Division and participated in the treatment of patients with total-body irradiation and chemotherapy. See DOE/EH-0482, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Oncologist Helen Vodopick, M.D. (August 1995).

56-National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA sought to determine whether astronauts should be protected from the radiation flux in the Van Allen belts and from radiation in space in the event of a highly energetic stellar event (such as a supernova). Such exposures, NASA calculated, would amount to about 1.5 roentgens (R) per hour. Some LETBI patients would receive similar rates of exposure for days at a time, as astronauts might. Accordingly, NASA paid ORINS to report on the effects of such exposure on patients in order to develop techniques that could be used to diagnose whether an astronaut was developing radiation sickness. The funding led to charges that NASA was dictating the exposure rates that the LETBI staff administered to patients. See "NASA Support for LETBI Research" in the Vodopick transcript (DOE/EH-0482, August 1995), and "NASA-Sponsored Studies" and "Questioning the Propriety of NASA-Funded Studies" in the Lushbaugh transcript (DOE/EH-0453, April 1995).

57-now the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland

58-relating to metastasis, the spread of disease-producing organisms or of malignant or cancerous cells to other parts of the body by way of the blood or lymphatic vessels or membranous surfaces; or, the condition so produced

59-a partly muscular gland that surrounds the urethra in males at the base of the bladder and secretes an alkaline fluid that makes up part of the semen

60-a Department of Energy weapons site in Aiken, South Carolina, that, during the Cold War, was the major source of tritium and plutonium for atomic bombs

61-Hanford Site is the Department of Energy's 570-square-mile former nuclear weapons complex near Richland, Washington.

62-For a firsthand account of Hanford's detection of Soviet atmospheric testing in 1946, see "Monitoring Successfully Detects the Soviets' Entry Into the Nuclear Age" in DOE/EH-0455, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of John W. Healy (May 1995).

63-Where harbor facilities for docking a large ship are inadequate or nonexistent, cargo must be transshipped to and from shore by means of smaller, often bargelike, shallow draft vessels (hence, "lighter").

64-Under international law, a diplomatic embassy is the sovereign soil of the nation being represented (in this case, the United States). Similarly, diplomatic pouches are immune from inspection by the host country.

65-Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts

66-From 1963 to 1973, the University of Washington, Seattle conducted studies on the effects of radiation on human testicular function, using inmates at the Washington State Prison in Walla Walla as subjects. Initially, 232 healthy volunteers were accepted into the study program. Sixty were subsequently irradiated with acute doses of x rays, ranging from 7.5 to 400 rads to the testes. Each selected inmate had expressed a desire to undergo a vasectomy at the conclusion of the study; 53 did so. All subjects eventually recovered to their normal preirradiation condition prior to vasectomy. The work was supported by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. See OT-14, " Testicular Irradiation of Washington State Prison Inmates," in Human Radiation Experiments Associated with the U.S. Department of Energy and Its Predecessors (213 pages), DOE/EH-0491, July 1995.

67-From August 1963 to May 1971, the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation in Seattle, Washington, used inmates at the Oregon State Prison in Salem to determine the effects of ionizing radiation on sperm production and to determine minimum dose levels for initial effect and permanent damage. Sixty-seven healthy volunteers ranging in age from 24 to 52 years were irradiated by x rays one or more times. Testicular absorbed doses ranged from 8 to 640 rads. Subjects were compensated for their participation and for each biopsy. All subjects who had not been previously vasectomized agreed to undergo a vasectomy at the conclusion of the study. All did so, receiving additional compensation. For details and a list of references, see OT-21, "Testicular Irradiation of Oregon State Prison Inmates," in Human Radiation Experiments Associated with the U.S. Department of Energy and Its Predecessors (213 pages), DOE/EH-0491, July 1995.

68-In 1966, the National Institutes of Health made recommendations to the Surgeon General's Office for the creation of what are now known as Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). IRBs review and approve medical research involving humans.

69-principal investigator for the Oregon prisoner studies

70-principal investigator for the Washington State Prison, Walla, Walla, Washington, testicular irradiation of inmates study, 1963–70

71-affecting somatic cells—any cells of the body that are not sexually reproductive cells

72-From 1951 to 1977, Durbin worked as a chemist and radiobiologist at the Crocker Laboratory of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory). For the transcript of the November 11, 1994 interview with Durbin, see DOE/EH-0458, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Dr. Patricia Wallace Durbin, Ph.D. (June 1995).

73-Richmond, a Los Alamos researcher, was on loan to the AEC from 1969 to 1971. For the transcript of the January 24, 1995 interview with Richmond, see DOE/EH-0477, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Radiobiologist Chet Richmond, Ph.D. (August 1995).

74-See DOE/EH-0454, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Dr. George Voelz, M.D. (May 1995)

75-multiatom particulates of radioactive material that emits many alpha or beta particles

76-In 1964, a U.S. Navy Transit navigation satellite failed to reach orbit and disintegrated in the atmosphere. The satellite received its electrical power from a 4.5-pound, grapefruit-sized radiothermal generator that produced energy from the heat of its decaying radioisotopes. The device, known as a SNAP or System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power, disintegrated, scattering plutonium particles in the atmosphere over the southern hemisphere. Today, plutonium-238 is used as a thermal source to keep instruments warm in outer space where it is very cold, such as on the Galileo space voyager.

77-study of the effects an detection of poisons; in this case, the study of the hazardous effects of internal radioisotopes

78-Since 1965, Battelle Memorial Institute, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, has operated the Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Richland, Washington, for the U.S. Department of Energy.

79-Lovelace Inhalation Toxicology Research Institute, Albuquerque

80-an excess assimilation of radioiodine in the thyroid, indicating abnormality

81-molecular fragments that have one or more unpaired electrons and are therefore highly reactive, being capable of causing rapidly oxidizing reactions that destabilize other molecules

82-the "Ames Test"

83-placement of sealed radiation sources into cavities of the body for treatment of cancer, such as uterine cancer; these sealed sources are later removed when treatment is completed.

84-radiation treatment in which the radiation source is located outside the body

85-U.S. chemist, born 1912. A professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, Seaborg discovered plutonium in 1940 and went on to play a key role in the discovery of more than half a dozen heavy elements through the 1950s, winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1952. Seaborg later served as Director of the Atomic Energy Commission.

86-Radioiodine (131I) is widely used to diagnose thyroid function and also is a highly effective therapy for hyperthyroidism, Graves' disease, and thyroid cancer.

87-The Medical Division at ORINS had approximately 30 beds for people with certain types of cancer; this contract was terminated in 1974.

88-the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital, one of three clinical facilities created by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948. While the AEC owned the 58-bed Chicago hospital, the University of Chicago medical school administered and staffed the facility. Patients were admitted on a selective basis: physicians chose persons whose condition best suited the hospital's research and treatment applications. The hospital admitted its first patient in January 1953. The Energy Research and Development Administration terminated Government support for Argonne and the other AEC-created research hospitals in 1974, three years after the hospital's name was changed to the Franklin McLean Institute. The facilities are now used by the university's medical school for studies in radiology and hematology.

89-a professor of Radiology at the University of Rochester (Rochester, New York), site of research involving plutonium and human subjects. Dr. Warren worked on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge as head of the medical section and headed an Intramedical Advisory Committee. After World War II, Dr. Warren became dean of the University of California, Los Angeles Medical School.

90-Tobias was a professor of medical physics and radiology at the Donner Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Tobias's main research focused on the biological effects of radiation; cancer research; and space medicine. For the transcript of the interview with Tobias, see DOE/EH-0480, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Biophysicist Cornelius A. Tobias, Ph.D. (July 1995).

91-Brookhaven National Laboratory (Upton, New York)

92-accelerators in which particles move in spiral paths in a constant magnetic field

93-the branch of medicine dealing with the statistics of incidence and prevalence of disease in large populations and with detection of the source and cause of epidemics; also: the factors contributing to the presence of absence of a disease

94-For DOE's perspective on the need for a cleanup, see Closing the Circle on the Splitting of the Atom: The Environmental Legacy of Nuclear Weapons Production in the United States and What the Department of Energy is Doing About It (106 pages), DOE Office of Environmental Management, January 1995.

95-Tylenol™ is a popular nonprescription pain reliever whose active ingredient is acetaminophen.