After x-rays were discovered in 1896, medical doctors immediately
saw the potential benefits and began experimenting with The Ray
using home-made equipment. (See REHW #691.) Just 3 weeks after
the discovery of x-rays was announced, the first of many
experimenters complained that their hands had received painful
In addition to x-rays, by 1910 the medical community was using
radioactive radium extensively for therapy. Radium was also used
industrially, to make glow-in-the-dark watch dials, dolls' eyes,
fish bait, gun sights and other items. However, in the mid-1920s
it became clear that many young women painting radium onto watch
dials were dying. Their employer, U.S. Radium in West Orange,
N.J., insisted the young women were dying because of poor
personal hygiene, but studies of the workplace concluded in 1924
and 1925 that all workers were being exposed to excessive
radiation. Thus humans learned by trial and error that alpha and
gamma radiation from radium can be extremely dangerous even in
On December 2, 1942, the first human-created nuclear reactor
began operating in a secret laboratory beneath the bleachers at
Stagg Field, University of Chicago. The purpose of this reactor
was, first, to demonstrate that nuclear fission could be achieved
(and controlled) and, second, to manufacture plutonium for a
bomb. Dr. Arthur Compton headed this "Manhattan Project," the
code name for the U.S. effort to make an A-bomb.
At that time, the world inventory of radium totaled about two
pounds. The nuclear reactors built in Chicago, then in Clinton,
Tennessee and Hanford, Washington would hold inventories with the
radioactive equivalent of thousands of tons of radium. Many of
the radioactive elements in these nuclear reactors were new, with
unknown characteristics. Arthur Compton and his colleagues
insisted that safety standards had to be developed to protect
workers from the harms of radiation.
Early in 1943, Compton hired a radiologist, a chemist and three
physicists to set radiation safety standards and to develop
measuring equipment to assure that the standards were met. These
5 scientists were called "health physicists" meaning physicists
concerned about health. To this day, scientists studying the
health effects of radiation call themselves health physicists.
X-ray specialists are called radiologists.
In September 1943, the initial group of health physicists moved
to Clinton, Tennessee where an enormous industrial facility was
being built to process uranium; this became known as the Oak
Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). In 1944, one of the original
five health physicists -- Karl Z. Morgan -- was named director of
the Health Physics Division at Oak Ridge, a position he held for
29 years until 1972 when he reached retirement age.[1,pg.33]
Morgan played a central role in the development of the health
physics profession, and in setting radiation standards
world-wide. The Health Physics Society was organized in 1955 with
Morgan as its president pro tem; he then served as the society's
first elected president in 1956-57. From 1955 to 1977 Morgan
served as editor-in-chief of the society's professional journal,
HEALTH PHYSICS. In 1966 an International Radiation Protection
Association was established, representing professionals in 30
countries, and Karl Morgan was elected its first president.
Most radiation standards are set by the International Commission
on Radiological Protection (ICRP), which in 1950 grew out of an
earlier standards-setting group, the International X-ray and
Radium Protection Committee. Karl Morgan served as one of the
ICRP's 13 members from 1950 to 1971, and during that time he
chaired the ICRP's committee on internal doses, setting radiation
standards which were then adopted world-wide. It seems clear why
Karl Morgan is often described as "the father of health physics."
In recent years, Karl Morgan has described and criticized the
work of the ICRP. Morgan says the ICRP has suffered from two
major blind spots: the Committee has never focused on harm to the
public from excessive exposure to medical x-rays, and by the
mid-1960s, the ICRP began setting standards for radioactivity
that protected the nuclear industry rather than the public,
According to Morgan (who is still an emeritus member of the
ICRP), the ICRP began ignoring serious radiation hazards in the
early 1960s. He writes, "The period of atmospheric testing of
nuclear weapons by the United States, the United Kingdom, France
and the U.S.S.R is a sad page in the history of civilized man.
Without question, it was the cause of hundreds of thousands of
cancer deaths. Yet there was complete silence on the part of the
ICRP. During these years (1960-1965), most members of the ICRP
either worked directly with the nuclear weapons industry or
indirectly received most of their funding for their research from
this industry. Perhaps they were reluctant to bite the hand that
In the 1970s, the situation grew worse after a series of studies
revealed that radiation was even more dangerous than previously
believed. In 1974, Baruch Modan showed that a woman's chances of
breast cancer were increased by x-ray doses as low as 1.6 rem.
In 1977 Thomas Mancuso and others reported that workers at the
Hanford plutonium facility were dying of cancers from radiation
doses as low as 3 rem accumulated over many years. (The worker
safety standard at the time was 5 rem per year.) Karl Morgan says
these studies threw the nuclear industry into a panic: "Concerned
that its very existence was threatened if the public believed
that there was an increased risk of cancer at these low levels of
exposure, the nuclear-industrial complex determined that it would
respond vigorously to all challengers," Morgan reports in his
autobiography.[1,pg.112] As a result, Morgan believes,
"...[H]ealth physics in recent decades has sacrificed its
integrity. Certainly there remain some true professionals who
will not shade the truth to appease their employers, but they are
in the minority," Morgan said in 1999.[1,pg.113]
The ICRP turned a blind eye to other problems affecting public
health -- excessive exposures from medical and dental x-rays.
Early in the 1950s, a series of studies had shown that x-rays
were more dangerous than previously known. In 1950, H.C. March
showed that radiologists were nine times as likely as other
physicians to die of leukemia. In 1956, Alice Stewart showed
that a single x-ray of a fetus in the womb would double the
likelihood of childhood leukemia.
In his 1999 autobiography, Morgan describes the ICRP's failure to
concern itself with excessive and unnecessary x-ray exposures
from diagnostic procedures:
"...[I]t was like running into a brick wall every time I raised
the question of excessive and unnecessary x-ray diagnostic
exposures," Morgan wrote in 1994. "I soon became convinced
that the subject of excessive medical exposure was a no, no with
ICRP because ICRP was founded under the auspices of the
International Congress of Radiology (ICR) and radiologists did
not want any restraints or interference in their use of
diagnostic x-rays. I had the uncomfortable feeling that there was
a serious conflict of interest with ICR sponsorship of ICRP....
Conflict of interest seems to be a contagious and virulent
In the mid-1960s, Morgan's division of the Oak Ridge Laboratory
studied the x-ray doses being received by U.S. children as a
result of a mass chest x-ray program. Starting in the 1950s,
portable x-ray machines in special trucks were brought to schools
and hundreds of thousands of U.S. children were given chest
x-rays. The Oak Ridge study found that each of these children was
receiving an x-ray dose of 2 to 3 rem; Morgan knew this was
excessive because workers at the Oak Ridge Laboratory were
getting a dose of only 0.015 rem from a chest x-ray. In other
words, children were getting a dose of x-rays 130 to 200 times as
high as the dose needed to produce an adequate x-ray film -- not
to mention that most of the children did not need a chest x-ray
at all. (The mass x-raying of U.S. children was stopped by a
campaign led by Morgan, Rosalie Bertell, Irwin Bross and
In the 1940s and 1950s, many shoe stores installed fluoroscopic
(x-ray) shoe-fitting machines. By 1949 a study had shown that
shoe-fitting machines were giving children high doses of
radiation. Again, the ICRP showed no interest in the subject.
Morgan and his colleagues calculated that medical x-rays
accounted for 90% of all radiation from human-created
sources.[7,8] Morgan showed in 1963 that the average U.S. citizen
was receiving each year about as much radiation from medical
x-rays as from natural background sources. In other words, the
use of medical x-rays was doubling the average person's exposure
to radiation in the U.S. Morgan's point was that the same
benefits could be achieved at much lower doses by using
up-to-date equipment and techniques. The medical community, for
the most part, turned a deaf ear.
For many years, Morgan and others wrote about the hazards of
excessive and unnecessary radiation exposures from medicine and
dentistry -- an effort he describes as "twenty years of
frustrating failures." In his autobiography (p. 121), Morgan says
it was "a highlight of my life's work" when President Lyndon
Johnson signed Public Law 90-602, the "Radiation Control for
Health and Safety Act of 1968" which set minimum federal
standards for x-ray equipment. (See www.fda.gov/cdrh/radhlth/-
summary.html.) However, the law can do nothing to curb
unnecessary and excessive x-ray exposures, which still occur
For the past 20 years, another important scientist concerned
about excessive exposure to x-rays has been Dr. John Gofman. In
his autobiography, Morgan describes Gofman this way:
"...John Gofman, a scientist who [holds] degrees in both
chemistry and medicine. Along with Glenn Seaborg, Gofman
co-discovered uranium-233, and he also was the first one to
isolate plutonium. In spite of these achievements, Gofman has yet
to receive the recognition due him; in my opinion, he is one of
the leading scientists of the twentieth century," Morgan writes.
For 20 years or more, Gofman has been publishing studies of the
hazards of low-level radiation. His latest book fills 700 pages
addressing this hypothesis: "Medical radiation is a highly
important cause (probably the principle cause) of cancer
mortality in the United States during the Twentieth Century."
In other words, Gofman believes that medical x-rays are the major
cause of cancer (including breast cancer) and heart disease in
the U.S. Gofman's work is careful, thorough, and clearly-written,
so most of the health physicists of this world probably cannot be
expected to take it lying down. More next week.
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Karl Z. Morgan and Ken M. Peterson, THE ANGRY GENIE; ONE
MAN'S WALK THROUGH THE NUCLEAR AGE (Norman, OK: University of
Oklahoma Press, 1999). ISBN 0-8061-3122-5.
 Karl Z. Morgan, "Changes in International Radiation
Protection Standards," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL MEDICINE
Vol. 25 (1994), pgs. 301-307.
 Baruch Modan and others, "Radiation-Induced Head and Neck
Tumors," LANCET (Feb. 23, 1974), pgs. 277-279.
 Thomas F. Mancuso and others, "Radiation Exposures of Hanford
Workers Dying from Cancer and Other Causes," HEALTH PHYSICS Vol.
33 (November 1977), pgs. 369-385.
 H.C. March, "Leukemia in radiologists in a twenty year
period," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF MEDICAL SCIENCE Vol. 220 (1950),
 Alice Stewart and others, "Preliminary Communication:
Malignant disease in childhood and diagnostic radiation in
utero," LANCET Vol. 2 (1956), pgs. 447-448.
 Karl Z. Morgan, "Medical X-Ray Exposures," INDUSTRIAL HYGIENE
JOURNAL (November/December, 1963), pgs. 588-599.
 Karl Z. Morgan, "You can drastically cut X-ray exposure below
today's levels," CONSULTANT (March/April, 1970), pg. 16.
 John Gofman, RADIATION FROM MEDICAL PROCEDURES IN THE
PATHOGENESIS OF CANCER AND ISCHEMIC HEART DISEASE (San Francisco:
Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, 1999). ISBN 0-932682-98-7.
$27.00; telephone (415) 776-8299. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Descriptor terms: radiation; x-rays; cancer; karl z. morgan; john
gofman; heart disease;