Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine

After World War II the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) began mass-producing radioisotopes, sending out nearly 64,000 shipments of radioactive materials to scientists and physicians by 1955. Even as the atomic bomb became the focus of Cold War anxiety, radioisotopes represented the government’s efforts to harness the power of the atom for peace—advancing medicine, domestic energy, and foreign relations.

In Life Atomic, Angela N. H. Creager tells the story of how these radioisotopes, which were simultaneously scientific tools and political icons, transformed biomedicine and ecology. Government-produced radioisotopes provided physicians with new tools for diagnosis and therapy, specifically cancer therapy, and enabled biologists to trace molecular transformations. Yet the government’s attempt to present radioisotopes as marvelous dividends of the atomic age was undercut in the 1950s by the fallout debates, as scientists and citizens recognized the hazards of low-level radiation. Creager reveals that growing consciousness of the danger of radioactivity did not reduce the demand for radioisotopes at hospitals and laboratories, but it did change their popular representation from a therapeutic agent to an environmental poison. She then demonstrates how, by the late 20th century, public fear of radioactivity overshadowed any appreciation of the positive consequences of the AEC’s provision of radioisotopes for research and medicine.

About the Author

Angela Creager is the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University. She graduated from Rice University with a double major in biochemistry and English (1985) and completed a Ph.D. in biochemistry (1991) at the University of California, Berkeley, where she developed an interest in the history of biology. Supported by postdoctoral awards, she retrained as a historian of science at Harvard University and MIT, and joined the Princeton history department in 1994. Her first book, The Life of a Virus: Tobacco Mosaic Virus as an Experimental Model, 1930–1965 (2002), shows how a virus that attacks tobacco plants came to play a central role in the development of virology and molecular biology. She is also the coeditor of three volumes, most recently Science without Laws: Model Systems, Cases, Exemplary Narratives (2007). She has served as director of graduate studies for the Program in History of Science and is affiliated with Princeton’s Program in the Study of Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is currently serving as president of the History of Science Society.