Living in the Nuclear Age: A Course for Medical Students Outlining Key Aspects of Medicine and Health Effects

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At Baylor College of Medicine, for nearly two decades, we have provided an elective course entitled “Nuclear Ethics,” in which we discuss the ways living in the nuclear age impacts medicine. The course reviews the health effects of the World War II Japanese bombings (including a discussion of the local medical library repository of a large collection of data related to the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission), the health effects of nuclear testing including the Marshall Islands and the Nevada Test site (the most heavily bombed place on earth), the risks attendant with employment in the nuclear industry, the current controversies attendant with nuclear power and the data associated with accidents such as those at Three Mile Islands, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, and a final discussion of nuclear conflicts in the world today. The students who enroll are largely first-year medical students.

The Houston and Baylor College of Medicine communities benefited greatly from the presence on retirement of Dr. William Schull, the geneticist and epidemiologist who led many of the activities of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. In his retirement he continued to teach students about the effects of the Japanese bombings. Through his nineties he eloquently described his love for the Japanese culture and provided in depth insights, knowledge, and experience about the effects of ionizing radiation. These discussions served as an impressive example for the medical students in the course. Much of his material are in the repository at the McGovern Historical Center of the Texas Medical Center Library.

Students participate by readings, discussion, and detailed assignments. The course is well-received and emphasizes an importance of physician involvement in nuclear issues, including the key role that the Physicians for Social Responsibility played in the test ban treaties and in the dissolution of the USSR in 1989.

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