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Healing a Sick World: Psychiatric Medicine and the Atomic Age

  • Ran Zwigenberg

The onset of nuclear warfare in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had far-reaching implications for the world of medicine. The study of the A-bomb and its implications led to the launching of new fields and avenues of research, most notably in genetics and radiation studies. Far less understood and under-studied was the impact of nuclear research on psychiatric medicine. Psychological research, however, was a major focus of post-war military and civilian research into the bomb. This research and the perceived revolutionary impact of atomic energy and warfare on society, this paper argues, played an important role in the global development of post-war psychiatry. Focusing on psychiatrists in North America, Japan and the United Nations, this paper examines the reaction of the profession to the nuclear age from the early post-war period to the mid 1960s. The way psychiatric medicine related to atomic issues, I argue, shifted significantly between the immediate post-war period and the 1960s. While the early post-war psychiatrists sought to help society deal with and adjust to the new nuclear reality, later psychiatrists moved towards a more radical position that sought to resist the establishment’s efforts to normalise the bomb and nuclear energy. This shift had important consequences for research into the psychological trauma suffered by victims of nuclear warfare, which, ultimately, together with other research into the impact of war and systematic violence, led to our current understanding of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

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I want to thank Oleg Benesch, Nathan Hopson, Susan Lindee, Robert Jacobs, Nakamura Eri, Daniel Joseph, Harry Wu, Sato Noburo and the anonymous readers and the editors for their insights and help with the article. Special thanks goes to Dagmar Herzog who shepherded this article for quite some time, and Kikuraku Shinobu and Kubota Akiko in Hiroshima for their help in locating Japanese sources. Research for this article was done with the support of the SSRC-JSPS Research Fund, the Kyoto Institute of Humanities, and the department of Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

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1. Farley, John, Brock Chisholm, the World Health Organization, and the Cold War (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008), 17.

2. For the Santa Claus reference, see ibid., 182.

3. Staub, Michael E., Madness Is Civilization: When the Diagnosis was Social, 1948–1980 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 18.

4. Ibid.

5. Dowbiggin, Ian, The Quest for Mental Health: A Tale of Science, Medicine, Scandal, Sorrow, and Mass Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) 139. Psychology is included here as the divisions between the two were not always clear at the time. In fact, as discussed below, the Menninger group was actively working to blur the lines between them. See Rebecca J. Plant, ‘William Menninger’s Campaign to Reform American Psychoanalysis, 1946–8’, History of Psychiatry, 16, 2 (2005), 182.

6. Boyer, Paul, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, 1st edn (New York: Pantheon, 1985); and Spencer R. Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988); Rosemary Mariner and Kurt Piehler. The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2009); Joseph Masco, ‘Atomic health, or how the Bomb altered American notions of death’, in J. Metzl and A. Kirkland (eds), Against Health: How Health Became the new Morality (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 133–56; Robert A. Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).

7. Oakes, Guy, ‘The Cold War system of emotion management: mobilizing the home front for World War III’, in Jackall, Robert (ed.), The Age of Propaganda (New York: New York University Press, 1995), 275296.

8. Tone, Andrea, The Age of Anxiety: A History of America’s Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers (New York: Basic Books, 2009); and Jackie Orr, Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Gerald N. Grob, The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill (New York: Free Press, 1994); Dowbiggin, op. cit. (note 5); and Staub, op. cit. (note 3).

9. Leys, Ruth, Trauma: A Genealogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Allan Young, The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009); Svenja Goltermann, The War in their Minds: German Soldiers and their Violent Pasts in West Germany, trans. Philip Schmitz (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2017).

10. For Japanese surnames I adhere to the Japanese convention in putting family names first, to be followed by given name.

11. Dagmar Herzog made a similar case in relation to debates over compensation for Holocaust survivors. I have related such debates to nuclear issues in my recent article. For Herzog, see ‘The obscenity of objectivity: post-Holocaust anti-Semitism and the invention-discovery of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’, in Lauren Faulkner and Wendy Lower (eds), Lessons and Legacies XII: The Holocaust Today (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013), p. 31 and Ran Zwigenberg, ‘Wounds of the Heart’: Psychiatric Trauma and Denial in Hiroshima, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 84 (Fall 2017) dbx037,

12. Zwigenberg, Ran, Hiroshima: The Origins of Global Memory Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 144174. PTSD, which entered the medical lexicon in 1980 through the third Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (APA DSM III), is defined as, ‘a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world’. The National Institute of Mental Health has a very helpful non-clinical explanation of symptoms at (accessed 13 June 13, 2017).

13. Staub, op. cit. (note 3), 37.

14. Ibid.

15. The sense of crisis was due to the exposure of large numbers of ‘mental defects’ by the military during screening for conscription as well as the large numbers of returning soldiers who suffered from anxiety. See, for instance, John Hersey, ‘a short talk with Erlanger’, Life Magazine, 29 October 1945, 108–22. Furthermore, as numerous contemporary observers noted, the atomic bomb was a leading source of cultural anxiety in the decade after the war. See note 6, especially Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Lightand Weart, Nuclear Fear.

16. Farley, op. cit. (note 1), 3, 213–9.

17. Ibid., 17.

18. Menninger, William C., Psychiatry in a Troubled World; Yesterday’s War and Today’s Challenge (New York: MacMillan, 1948).

19. Chisholm, George Brock, The Reestablishment of Peacetime Society: Responsibility of Psychiatry, Responsibility of Psychiatrists; Panel Discussion of the First Lecture (Baltimore: William Alanson White Psychiatric Foundation, 1946) 1, 5–6.

20. Fremont-Smith, Frank, ‘The Mental Health Aspects of the Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy’, The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 28, 3 (1958), 456.

21. Ibid., 467.

22. Jacobs, op. cit. (note 6), 42.

23. Boyer, op. cit. (note 6), 76–81.

24. Ibid., 45, 368.

25. Cohen-Cole, Jamie, ‘Cold War Salons, Social Science, and the Cure for Modern Society’, Isis: An International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences, 100, 2 (2009), 228.

26. Plant, op. cit. (note 5), 184.

27. Chisholm, op. cit. (note 19), 13.

28. Shapira, Michal, The War Inside: Psychoanalysis, Total War, and the Making of the Democratic Self in Postwar Britain (London: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 197.

29. Ibid.

30. Pick, Daniel, The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess, and the Analysts (London: Oxford University Press, 2014), 22.

31. Chisholm, op. cit. (note 19), 17.

32. See Zwigenberg, op. cit. (note 12), p. 2.

33. Plant, Rebecca J., ‘The Veteran, his Wife, and their Mothers: prescriptions for psychological rehabilitation after World War II’, in Oostdijk, Diederik and Valenta, Markha (eds), Tales of the Great American Victory: World War II in Politics and Poetics (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 2006), 95105.

35. Kent, Pauline, ‘Ruth Benedict’s Original Wartime Study of the Japanese’, International Journal of Japanese Sociology, 3, 1 (1994), 8197.

36. Leighton’s path intersected with that of Margaret Mead and many others social science luminaries. Peter Mandler brilliantly and sympathetically analyses Leighton and others’ work during the war in his Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 134–64.

37. Tremblay, Marc-Adélard, ‘Alexander Hamilton Leighton: Biographical Memoirs’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 153, 4 (2009), 479.

38. Leighton, Alexander, ‘The Sown Wind (On Hiroshima)’, unpublished manuscript, Folder 11, Box 1, Lawrence C. Vincent Collection, University of Colorado Archives at Boulder Libraries, Colorado.

39. Ibid.

40. Leighton, Alexander H., Human Relations in a Changing World; Observations on the use of the Social Sciences (New York: Dutton, 1949), 11.

41. Leighton, op. cit. (note 38), 7.

42. Leighton, op. cit. (note 40), 76.

43. United States Strategic Bombing Survey, ‘The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’, 4 January 2017).

44. Jackie Orr, op. cit. (note 8), 87.

45. Tremblay, op. cit. (note 37), 481.

46. See Zwigenberg op. cit. (note 12).

47. Japanese research on trauma has remained largely unstudied by historians in either Japanese or English. Histories of the profession like Okada Yasuo, Nihon seishinka iryōshi [Japanese Psychological Science: A Medical History] (Tokyo: Igaku Shoin, 2002) or Yagi Gōhei and Akira Tanabe, Nihon seishinbyō chiryōshi [History of Treatment of Mental Illness in Japan] (Tokyo: Kanehara Shuppan, 2002) focus almost exclusively on the history of psychiatric hospitals and, surprisingly, do not mention the impact of the war (one exception being doctors’ efforts in campaigning for mental patients who suffered horribly from neglect during the war). New work has sought to change this situation, especially in regards to military psychiatry. Beside Nakamura Eri’s and Janice Matsumura’s work, quoted below, Shimizu Hiroshi, Nihon Teikoku Rikugun to seishin shōgai heishi [The Japanese Imperial Army and Soldiers’ Mental Disorders] (Tokyo: Fuji Shuppan, 2007).

48. Zwigenberg, op. cit. (note 12), p. 147.

49. Eri, Nakamura, ‘Nihon teikoku rikugun to sensōshinkeibyō: senshōbyōsha o meguru shakai kūkan ni okeru “kokoro no kaze” [The Imperial Army and War Neurosis: War Casualties and PTSD in Society]’, Sensō sekinin kenkyu, 81 (2013), 5261.

50. Here and elsewhere, I follow Japanese convention in putting family name first, followed by given name.

51. Nakamura, Eri, ‘“Invisible” War Trauma in Japan: Medicine, Society and Military Psychiatric Casualties’, Historia Scientiarium, 25, 2 (2016), 144.

52. See Katō Masaaki, Noiroza shinkeishō to wa nani ka[What are Neurosis and Nervous Disorders] (Tokyo, 1955). See also Suzuki Akihito’s summary of the book (in Japanese) at accessed 25 July 2016.

53. Minaao, Nishimoto and Kazuo, Matsumoto, ‘Saigai no shinshi hoken gakuteki kenkyū: hanshin daijishinsai 6 nen ato ni okeru [Research on Preserving the Health of Mind and Body after Disasters: A Report 6 Years after the Great Hanshin Earthquake]’, Jinbun ronkyū, 52, 3 (2002), 66.

54. Ibid.

55. Shizuo, Matsuda, ‘Genbaku hibakusha no seishin shōgai ni tsuite [About the Mental Damage of A-bomb survivors]’, Hiroshima igaku, 11, 9 (1958), 38.

56. For a full survey, see Zwigenberg op. cit. (note 12), 151–4.

57. Zwigenberg op. cit. (note 12), 153.

58. Eiko, Osaka, ‘Senryō Nihon shinrigaku [Psychology in Occupied Japan]’, Surugadai Daigaku kyuyō kenkyūsho, 1 (2011), 181.

59. Ibid., 177.

60. Ibid., 186.

61. Chūgoku Shinbun, 16 December 1954.

62. ‘Heiwa no Tame no Shinrigakusha Kondankai’, Heiwa shinrigaku no ibuki[Journal of Peace Psychology] (Kyoto: Hōsei Shuppan, 1990), 1.

63. Ibid., 2.

64. Saiichi, Tomizawa, ‘Kanai Toshihiro no shisō to kodō [The thought and actions of Kanai Tashiro]’, in Hiroshima Daigaku Bunshokan, Hibakuchi Hiroshima no fukkō katei ni okeru shinbunjin to hōdō ni kan suru chōsa kenkyū: Zaidan hōjin mitsubishi zaidan jinbun kagaku kenkyū josei heisei 19 nendo kenkyū seika hōkokusho [An Investigation in Regard to Journalists and Information in the Recovery of Atomic-Bombed Hiroshima: A Research Report for the Mitsubishi Foundation Grant for Social Sciences], (Hiroshima, 2009), 31–2. See also Chūgoku Shinbun, 1 August 1956.

65. Gensuibaku Kinshi Hiroshima ken Kyōgikai, Genbaku higaisha jittai chōsa hōkoku[An Informational Report on the True Conditions of A-bomb Survivors] (Hiroshima: Gensuibaku Kinshi Hiroshima Kyōgikai Genbaku Higaisha Kyūen Iinkai, 1956), 5–6.

66. For hibakusharesponses, see Zwigenberg op. cit. (note 12).

67. Chūgoku Shinbun, 4 August 1958.

68. Quoted in Zwigenberg op. cit. (note 12).

69. Seiji, Imahori, Gensuibaku jidai: gendaishi no shōgen [The Age of the H-bomb: A Witness to Contemporary History] (Kyoto: San’ichishobō, 1960), 15.

70. Yoshitoshi, Kubo, ‘Hiroshima hibaku choku go no ningen kōdō no kenkyū [Research in the Human Reactions in Hiroshima Right After the A-bomb]’, Shinrigaku kenkyū, 22, 2 (1951), 103110.

71. Ibid., 109.

72. Masaharu, Hamatani, ‘Genbaku hibakusha mondai chōsa kenkyū no rekishi to hohō [History and Methods of Research into A-bomb survivors]’, Hitosubashi Kenkyū, 21 (1971), 56.

73. Kubo, op. cit. (note 70), 103.

74. Chūgoku Shinbun, 2 June 1950.

75. Ibid.

76. Yoshitoshi, Kubo, ‘Gensuibaku e no taido [Attitudes towards the H-bomb]’, Genbaku to Hiroshima, 16 (1954), 24.

77. Chūgoku Shinbun, 15 May 1953 (evening edition).

78. Masaharu, Hamatani, ‘Genbaku taiken to “kokoro no kizu” [A-bomb Experience and PTSD]’, IPSHU kenkyū hōkoku, 41 (2009), 56.

79. For a full review of Atoms for Peace and its place in American diplomacy and propaganda, see ch. 5 of Kenneth Osgood, Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas, 2006).

80. See ‘Expert Meeting on the Social and Moral Implications of the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy’ (UNESCO House 15–19 September 1958), UNESCO/SS/26 620.992/3A06 (44) UNESCO Archives, Paris; and A. Zvorkine, ‘Social and moral problems of the scientific and technical revolution of our time’, in Otto Klineberg (ed.), Social Implications of the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (UNESCO, 1964).

81. Josephson, Paul, Red Atom: Russia’s Nuclear Power Program from Stalin To Today (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005). See also Dolores L. Augustine, Red Prometheus: Engineering and Dictatorship in East Germany, 1945–1990 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).

82. Report by the director general on the expert meeting on the social and moral implications of the peaceful uses of atomic energy (September 1958), UNESCO/SS/26 620.992/3A06 (44), UNESCO Archives, Paris.

83. Mandler, op. cit. (note 36), p. 135.

84. Ibid., 1.

85. Hoff, Hans, ‘Mental health implications in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy’, in Klineberg, Otto (ed.), Social Implications of the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (Paris: UNESCO, 1964), 100.

86. Tomizawa, op. cit. (note 64), 5.

87. World Health Organization, ‘Mental Health Aspects of the Peaceful uses of Atomic Energy: A Report of a Study Group’ (Geneva, 21–26 October 1957), in WHO/MH/AE 1-2 (1957–8), WHO archives, Geneva, 3. I thank Harry Wu for this reference.

88. Klineberg, Otto, Introduction to Social Implications of the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, 10–11.

89. Klineberg, Otto, Introduction to Social Implications of the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, 6.

90. Ibid., 24.

91. Ibid., 34.

92. Ibid., 33.

93. Ibid., 6.

94. World Health Organization, op. cit. (note 87), 4.

95. Ibid., 16.

96. Ibid., 17.

97. World Health Organization, op. cit. (note 87), 39–40.

98. Ibid., 44.

99. Fremont-Smith, op. cit. (note 20), 456.

100. World Health Organization, op. cit. (note 87), 21.

101. Ibid., 16.

102. Ibid., 41.

103. UNESCO Press Division, ‘UNESCO and Atomic Energy’, IAEA Bulletin, 2, 1 (1960), 21.

104. Ibid.

105. Serlin, David, Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 182.

106. Robert Lifton to David Riesman, 10 April 1962, Box 15, Folder 8 (1962) Robert Jay Lifton papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. (NYPL-MSA).

107. Ibid.

108. Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, The Psychological and Medical Aspects of the Use of Nuclear Energy: The Meetings of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, Held at the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel, Asbury Park, New Jersey on Sunday November 9 1958 and on Sunday April 5 1959 (New York: GAP, 1960), 205. Frank served in the Philippines as a military psychiatrist. During his service in Asia, he became staunchly anti-nuclear and, according to Lifton, was the first major psychiatrist to be active in the anti-bomb movement. Author’s communication with Robert J. Lifton, 8 January 2014.

109. Dana Farnsworth, who presided over the GAP nuclear energy seminars, politely referred to the reactions as covering ‘a wide spectrum [of] the opinions of the GAP members’. See Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, ibid., 209.

110. Ibid.

111. Frank, Jerome D., ‘The Great Antagonism’, Atlantic Monthly (November 1958), 21.

112. Ibid., 24.

113. Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, op. cit. (note 108), 209.

114. Ibid.

115. Ibid., 218.

116. Ibid., 215.

117. Aronow, Saul (ed.), The Fallen Sky; Medical Consequences of Thermonuclear War (New York: Hill and Wang, 1963).

118. Physicians for Social Responsibility, A History of Accomplishments (Boston, MA: PSR, 2000), 1. Drs Bernard Lown, Victor Sidel, Sidney Alexander, Jack Geiger, Alexander Leaf, George Saxton, and Robert Goldwyn were among the founding physicians.

119. Initially, the PSR took a measured approach that grounded its mission in the profession, neither resisting nuclear energy for peaceful purposes nor expressing open hostility to the government. The organisation’s statement of purpose read: We believe that the physician’s response to this challenge must stem from his dual role as scientist and as a clinician. As scientist he is the custodian of technical information, trained in the analysis of complex problems, and experienced in the objective presentation of data. It is the physician’s responsibility as scientist to study the medical consequences of nuclear testing, of attack by chemical or biological weapons, and of thermonuclear war. Other relevant factors include such issues as the psychological factors in the arms race, alternative approaches to the resolution of conflict, and the peaceful uses of atomic energy. It is the physician’s further responsibility as scientist to further share his knowledge with the public, in order to make possible rational discussion and informed decision-making by the community. Physicians for Social Responsibility, ‘Statement of Purpose’ (circa 1963), Box 14, Folder 6, The Robert J. Lifton Papers, NYPL-MSA.

120. Author’s communication with Robert J. Lifton, 8 January 2014.

121. The PSR statement of purpose also used very similar language to Chisholm’s and Menninger’s earlier campaigns.

122. Aronow, op. cit. (note 117), 45–6. The report quotes at length Hiroshima’s Hachiya Michihiko, a physician, and Nagai Takashi, a Nagasaki physicist.

123. Ibid., 45.

124. Ibid., 54.

125. Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, Committee on Social Issues, Psychiatric Aspects of the Prevention of Nuclear War (New York: GAP, 1964), 245.

126. Ibid., 235.

127. Ibid., 278.

128. Ibid., 247.

129. Ibid., 246.

130. Lifton, Robert J., ‘Reason, Rearmament, and Peace: Japan’s Struggles with a Universal Dilemma’, Asian Survey, 1, 11 (1962), 15.

131. Author’s interview with Robert J. Lifton, 6 December 2013. Lifton’s contemporaries, including Anne Parsons, Talcott Parsons’ daughter and a trained psychoanalyst, similarly criticised psychiatrists’ obsession with childhood and their hostility toward those who were maladjusted to the nuclear world. In a letter to her father, written in November 1963 from the Yale Psychiatric Hospital where she was hospitalised following what was seen as her extreme anxiety over nuclear issues, Parsons explained, This is what an … important part of my conflict with Dr. A [her analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute] … was about, since when I was in such a panic about nuclear war and the possibility of American fascism, he simply could not or did not see that people ever have strong emotions about anything but their immediate personal relationships or whatever it is that happens before one is six years old. Orr, op. cit. (note 8), 157. As Orr points out, Parsons’ critique of psychiatry also contained a strong gender element.

132. Robert Lifton to David Riesman, 9 April 1962, Box 15, Folder 8 (1962), The Robert J. Lifton Papers, NYPL-MSA.

133. Lifton, Robert Jay, ‘Psychological Effects of the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima: The Theme of Death’, Daedalus, 92, 3 ‘Themes in Transition’ (Summer 1963), 482.

134. Ibid., 476.

135. Ibid., 476, 478.

136. See Zwigenberg op. cit. (note 12).

137. Arguably, it was only following this development, and thanks to Lifton’s own influence and contacts with Japanese doctors, that PTSD research and psychiatric care were finally initiated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the 1980s and 1990s. Author’s interview with Dr Tomonaga Masao, 19 February 2015 (Nagasaki), and Dr Nakane Yoshibumi, 18 February 2015 (Nagasaki). Both physicians were pioneers in supplying mental health care for hibakusha.

I want to thank Oleg Benesch, Nathan Hopson, Susan Lindee, Robert Jacobs, Nakamura Eri, Daniel Joseph, Harry Wu, Sato Noburo and the anonymous readers and the editors for their insights and help with the article. Special thanks goes to Dagmar Herzog who shepherded this article for quite some time, and Kikuraku Shinobu and Kubota Akiko in Hiroshima for their help in locating Japanese sources. Research for this article was done with the support of the SSRC-JSPS Research Fund, the Kyoto Institute of Humanities, and the department of Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

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