With a spotlight sinking his eyes in deep shadows, molding his cheekbones and shadowing his long beard, Dr. Glenn Geelhoed looked as well as sounded like a prophet of doom yesterday as he told 1,000 physicians that any hopes they may have of healing victims of a nuclear attack on Washington are meaningless.
"Surgery and the practice of medicine rely on society," Geelhoed said. "Society will not exist. It will be destroyed the moment the first thermonuclear bomb explodes."
"Death and devastation would be beyond our ability to imagine," echoed Dr. H. Jack Geiger, professor of community medicine at City College of New York. "The distinction between victims and survivors would be negligible." Death and injury, he said, would be inflicted by these causes:
Static overpressure: "It would be as though the whole sky, from horizon to horizon, were turned into a concrete hammer which fell on us and crushed us."
Blast: "Flying glass would become a giant Cuisinart for people. There would be flying bricks and stones, causing fractures and bullet-type wounds. There would be flying people."
Heat: "In addition to the initial fire of incredibly intense temperatures there would be spontaneous combustion everywhere. There would be up to 115,000 third-degree burn victims in Washington alone."
Fire storms: "Whipped by 300-mile-an-hour winds . . . these would be far more severe than the fire storms that swept Hamburg and Dresden from conventional bombing in World War II. Those in bomb shelters would be dry-roasted and asphyxiated."
For each hospital bed left standing in the Washington area, there would be 800 victims requiring hospitalization, he said.
Geelhoed said burning would be the most severe type of injury inflicted by a nuclear attack, yet there are now only 1,000 so-called burn beds throughout the United States and in the District only one burn-care facility with just eight beds.
"The personnel and supplies needed to provide care for one burn victim are substantial," Geelhoed said, noting that the cost for treating a single severe burn victim is often between $300,000 and $500,000.
"Multiply that victim by millions; take away the people able to treat the injured, medical facilities, necessary equipment, communications, medical supplies, energy, even water, and you begin to comprehend the aftermath of nuclear war," he said.
Geelhoed, a professor of surgery at George Washington University, and Geiger were two of a dozen physicians and scientists who drew a horrifyingly graphic picture of the medical consequences of a nuclear attack at a symposium yesterday at George Washington University.
Among the speakers at the day-long session in Lisner Auditorium were Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine; planetary physicist Carl Sagan, and Jerome Wiesner, president emeritus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former scientific adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Geelhoed's intense but calm account of devastation in the Washington area was in stunning counterpoint to blood-curdling slides towering above him, showing victims of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: skinned alive, eyelids peeled away, internal organs exposed and crushed, bodies burnt to charcoal.
In the immediate aftermath of those attacks in Japan, many survivors were saved by help from outside the target areas, Geiger later said. But in the much heavier assault anticipated in an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, he added, there would be no "outside."
Salk chose to dwell not on the effects of an attack but, rather, on what people can do to force their governments to eliminate the chances of such an attack.
Weisner, who said he had been "a great hero in this town" when he was inventing nuclear weapons, claimed that the United States "in a very real sense is running the arms race with itself."
"This," he said, "is the time to start a peace race."