Japanese and American experts are exploring ways to put the data archives of a study on A-bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki online.
While there are privacy concerns to overcome, providing digital access to the archives is expected to deepen public understanding of the history of the U.S. radiation impact study by allowing researchers and others in Japan and elsewhere to examine the documents without having to travel to the United States.
The U.S. decision to use the atomic bombs still resonates today. Taous Feroukhi, who will chair the upcoming review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, visited Hiroshima on Friday and met with hibakusha. She also visited Nagasaki on Saturday.
The Japanese initiative focuses on the massive amount of documents generated by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), the U.S. body that carried out the radiation study.
According to project leader Masahito Ando, a professor of archival science at Gakushuin University’s Graduate School of Humanities, the team has so far acquired around 140,000 digital images of the commission’s entire collection at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.
Funded by the Japanese government, Ando’s group is now using the material to develop what it calls a “digital archive related to atomic bomb radiation effects on human body,” with assistance from the Texas Medical Center Library in Houston, which holds another key ABCC-linked archive.
“Currently, our focus is on the (online) disclosure of the National Academy of Sciences collection . . . but in the future, we hope the system will enable public access to various kinds of records in the United States,” Ando said, adding it would be even better if Japanese keywords could be used to search the documents.
Ando said his team aims to make some of the U.S. academy’s collection accessible electronically by March 2017, the deadline for the initiative, which commenced in fiscal 2013.
The United States officially established the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in 1947 to carry out a long-term study of the medical impact of the A-bombings, which are estimated to have killed over 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the end of 1945 and left many survivors with long-term health problems.
The ABCC carried out genetic studies involving children born to the survivors, life span surveys and health studies involving adults. Its research has been taken over by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Japan, which was launched in 1975 and is funded by both the Japanese and U.S. governments.
The research, initially classified as a U.S. military secret, is known as the longest ongoing epidemiological study on the effects of radiation on atomic bomb survivors and their descendants.
While the U.S. academy houses the ABCC’s official records, the Texas Medical Center Library’s collection is unique because it contains many personal items, such as diaries and letters written by members of the commission.
The library is already providing public access to some of the items via its website, including the personal journal of William Moloney, a U.S. hematologist who worked with the ABCC from 1952 to 1954.
Philip Montgomery, the library’s archivist, said Moloney’s journal is interesting because it reveals the personal emotions of the doctor, which are not revealed in any of the official documents. In one entry, for example, Moloney expresses frustration with his inability to treat a 9-year-old Japanese boy who was suffering from leukemia and was the same age as his son.
Many of the A-bomb survivors have criticized the commission’s doctors for treating them like”guinea pigs” rather than helping them.
But Montgomery said Japanese visitors are often very surprised by what they find in Moloney’s diary, apparently because their preconceptions of the commission’s members were inherently negative.
“But I think for the most part ABCC doctors were not like that — they wanted to help, they were tired of war and they just wanted to get on with their lives,” Montgomery said.
“To really understand what Americans went through, for example, in the ABCC, or what the Japanese went through, it’s good to know the letters. The letters, the correspondence, the oral histories — all those things help,” he added.
Montgomery believes inaccessible archives are of no value to anyone, and that is one of the reasons why he is collaborating with Ando.
But both Ando and Montgomery acknowledged that privacy is the biggest hurdle in their undertaking, given that the records include sensitive private materials, such as photos of scarred survivors holding nameplates.
“Digital is much different than a paper archive,” Montgomery said. “We have to find ways to restrict that material and do it in a way that allows people to still have the freedom of seeing it. So it’s very challenging.”
Ando, meanwhile, said he hopes the ongoing project will encourage the online disclosure of the related archives in Japan, including one at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation.
“If U.S. entities agree to place their material on the digital archive system, I hope momentum will also grow in Japan to join such moves,” he said.