David Bradley, 92; Warned of Health Risks of Atomic Weapons

After witnessing atomic tests in the '40s, David Bradley abandoned medicine to warn of the weapons' risks.
After witnessing atomic tests in the '40s, David Bradley abandoned medicine to warn of the weapons' risks. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

David Bradley, 92, who as an Army medical officer in the 1940s was among the first to warn Americans about public health dangers posed by atomic weapons, died Jan. 7 at a rehabilitation center near his home in Norway, Maine. He had renal failure.

Dr. Bradley, a Harvard Medical School graduate, was sent to Bikini Atoll in 1946 as a "geiger man," or radiological monitor, during postwar atomic tests in the South Pacific. Bikini, in the Marshall Islands, was a major testing site for the United States' early nuclear ambitions, which required removing the area's native people.

After the tests in the summer of 1946, Dr. Bradley said he heard military peers speaking of the inevitability of nuclear war with the Soviets. He soon abandoned medicine to lecture for the United World Federalists peace movement and write "No Place to Hide" (1948), his diary of what he had seen at Bikini.

In a review, New York Times science writer William L. Laurence said the book "will be welcomed not only as a contribution to world peace but also as first-hand raw material for future historians of the early days of the atomic age -- and (last but not least) as a real contribution to literature, atomic or otherwise."

In one of Dr. Bradley's most quoted passages, he wrote: "We certainly have little idea what the long-range effect on our lives would be from an all-out atomic war, devastating our shores, our fish and our agricultural industries.

"But at least at this time we do know that Bikini is not some far-away little atoll, pinpointed on an out-of-the-way chart. It is San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound, East River. It is the Thames, the Adriatic, the Hellespont and misty Baikal.

"It isn't just King Juda [of Bikini] and his displaced native subjects about whom we have to think -- or to forget."

In a subsequent interview, Dr. Bradley said the Bikini tests were unlike the airborne explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the rising heat lifted the radioactive particles to be "dispersed harmlessly" into the stratosphere.

The atomic detonations at the Bikini lagoon poisoned dozens of naval vessels, of which a handful were successfully rid of contaminants, he said. "The Navy referred to the others as 'survivors.' That's a cute way of putting it," Dr. Bradley said. "For my money, that lagoon will always be deadly."

In speeches and opinion pieces, he continued for decades to criticize the atomic blast at Bikini and what he called miserable treatment by the U.S. government of veterans exposed to radiation.

David John Bradley was born Feb. 22, 1915, in Chicago and raised in Madison, Wis. He was a 1938 summa cum laude English graduate of Dartmouth College, where he became captain of the school's formidable ski team.

In his senior year, he also was named the U.S. national champion in the Nordic combined, which involves ski jumping and cross-country skiing. He was chosen for the 1940 U.S. Olympic ski team, but the games were canceled because of war.

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