The History of Radiation, Radioactivity, and Radiological Protection: Andy Karam's Review of Bo Lindell's Four-Book Series

  1. Pandora's Box: The Time Before World War II (191 pages) 1996/2015 (translation)
  2. The Sword of Damocles: The 1940s (275 pages) 1999/2019 (translation)
  3. The Labours of Hercules: 1950–1966 (379 pages) 2003/2020 (translation)
  4. The Toil of Sisyphus: 1966–1999+ (467 pages) 2011/2020 (translation)

Bo Lindell (1922–2016) was one of the giants of health physics. With a career that began in 1948 and continued until his death in 2016, Lindell served as chair of the International Commission on Radiological Protection, chair of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, head of the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority (succeeding Rolf Sievert), and much more. Among his crowning achievements was The History of Radiation, Radioactivity, and Radiological Protection, his history of the field to which he had devoted so much of his life—his magnum opus. Originally published in Swedish, Lindell's four-book series was recently translated into English, making it accessible to a much larger audience—including us!

In Volume 1 (Pandora's Box), Lindell takes us from the ancient Greeks and the beginning of what was to become natural philosophy through to the discovery of x rays, radioactivity, and radiation to the start of the Second World War. For most of that time, of course, these words, let alone the concepts they represent, did not even exist. But there was quite a bit of work that set the stage for Wilhelm Roentgen and Henri Becquerel, and I always enjoy being reminded of the work, the observations, and the thinking that went into forming our current views of our world and the universe and the rules that describe their workings. Along the way, we get to learn about Paracelsus' view of "mountain sickness," but as one might expect, the majority of this volume covers the period from the discovery of x rays through 1939.

From a historic perspective, this is a great period of time—it covers not only the original scientific discoveries and those who made them, but also the early work of trying to figure out what these new phenomena might be used for. This brings us into the worlds of medicine and industry as well as into some of the uses that, today, we couldn't (and wouldn't) even dream of trying, such as deliberately ingesting radium. Volume 1 ends with a flurry of Nobel Prizes and the discovery of nuclear fission—"breaking the seal" of Pandora's box, in the words of the author.

Volume 2 (The Sword of Damocles) picks up with Lise Meitner and the explorations into the atomic nucleus along with those of Niels Bohr, Otto Frisch, and others—the work that eventually led to Leo Szilard's speculation of a chain reaction, controlled in a nuclear reactor or uncontrolled in a bomb. There was much more going on in the 1940s than nuclear weapons research, primarily the beginning of our current systems of regulation and control, but the focus of this volume is the decade's main event—the Manhattan Project, the nuclear weapons that it designed and built, and the ensuing scientific and military research and testing that followed. This volume ends with the birth of atomic energy as well as the revival of many of the international bodies that had become neglected during the war and the beginning work on ultra-high-voltage x-ray machines—setting the stage for the growth of nonmilitary uses of these phenomena.

This volume also introduces us to many of those who formed our profession from any number of nations and gives us glimpses behind the scenes of our profession's early days. From a narrative standpoint, it's easy to dread a dry recitation of meetings, names, and dates—luckily, Lindell goes beyond this to give us a flavor for the personalities involved and the discussions and negotiations that went into these formative years. It helps that he knew and worked with many of those involved and that he was beginning his career towards the end of the decade. It's interesting to read, for example, about Lindell's job interview with Rolf Sievert and to see Sievert through the eyes of a 20-something looking for his first post-university job and to learn about Sievert's admonitions to his new staff member.

Volume 3 (The Labours of Hercules) picks up in 1950 and takes us through the formation and strengthening of today's international order in radiation safety, the birth of modern nuclear medicine and radiation oncology, still more nuclear weapons testing, and the ever-continuing growth of knowledge. Here, too, Lindell's personal engagement in so much of what we now take for granted and his work with so many of the greats in our profession adds significantly to the book. I suppose one can argue that his personal reminisces might detract from the objectivity one might expect in a history. At the same time, it lets Lindell tell us first-hand what the various discussions took place, what the various parties were interested in, and how they tried to balance the science, the uncertainties, the desire to protect workers and the public, and the desire to not go overboard when doing so. We also see the birth of radioecology, the discovery of the structure of DNA, the birth of both civilian and military nuclear energy, and the era of all-out atmospheric (and underwater) nuclear weapons testing. This volume ends with Sievert's death, ending the postwar era in health physics.

This brings us to Volume 4 (The Toil of Sisyphus), leading us into the new millennium and a little beyond. With the banning of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, the health effects of this practice dropped precipitously; at the same time, the medical use of radiation and radioactivity was beginning to grow. All of these changes caused public reactions that led, in turn, to regulatory changes and a change in many radiation practices. There were still more influential conferences and meetings and an explosion in our understanding and experience working with radiation and radioactivity under both routine and emergency circumstances. Radioactive sources and nuclear reactors are shot into space (a few return unexpectedly), nuclear reactors are made small and are built even in small nations, and the widespread use of high-activity sources and high-voltage devices leads to an increasing number of accidents that injure—even kill—people.

In this context, it's not surprising that there would be increasing efforts to develop consistent safety and regulatory standards, as well as an increasing number of industrial and trade organizations—all with the goal of extracting as much utility as possible from the atom with the lowest risk. And in this era, we also see health physics taking the form of what we all know and are familiar with.

Lindell was involved in much of the activity described in this volume, and it is impressive to understand how much of global health physics today originated in meetings that he attended—meetings that were filled with people he knew personally. Here, again, the book reads as much like a memoir as a history, and it is the better for it. Lindell completed his writing in 2011, covering events through 2010.

The only history of our profession to which this can be compared is Newell Stannard's trilogy Radioactivity and Health: A History, published in 1988. Both series are of comparable length. Stannard's focuses on the scientific inquiries into radiation and radioactivity—especially their health effects—and is the most complete treatment of its subject that exists. Lindell's work does not skimp on the science, but he also writes about the personalities, the social trends, and how these all interacted to give us the profession that we now have. Even considering that they were completed a few decades apart in time, these series complement each other quite nicely.

Another difference is that Lindell writes personally; he doesn't shy away from referring to himself in the first person as opposed to the more academic third person. On top of that, he also lets a bit of wit and personal anecdotes come through from time to time, making this more like a series of conversations between friends and colleagues than an account of past events.

With all of us spending more time home and indoors, reading Lindell's series is a great project. You can access the PDFs at no charge on the International Radiation Protection Association website. The page that this links to has further links to take you to either of two download sites. Alternately, you can find all four volumes in paperback on at a very reasonable price (less than $10 per volume at this time in the United States).