Nuclear energy in the service of biomedicine: The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's Radioisotope Program, 1946-1950

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The widespread adoption of radioisotopes as tools in biomedical research and therapy became one of the major consequences of the "physicists' war" for postwar life science. Scientists in the Manhattan Project, as part of their efforts to advocate for civilian uses of atomic energy after the war, proposed using infrastructure from the wartime bomb project to develop a government-run radioisotope distribution program. After the Atomic Energy Bill was passed and before the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was formally established, the Manhattan Project began shipping isotopes from Oak Ridge. Scientists and physicians put these reactor-produced isotopes to many of the same uses that had been pioneered with cyclotron-generated radioisotopes in the 1930s and early 1940s. The majority of early AEC shipments were radioiodine and radiophosphorus, employed to evaluate thyroid function, diagnose medical disorders, and irradiate tumors. Both researchers and politicians lauded radioisotopes publicly for their potential in curing diseases, particularly cancer. However, isotopes proved less successful than anticipated in treating cancer and more successful in medical diagnostics. On the research side, reactor-generated radioisotopes equipped biologists with new tools to trace molecular transformations from metabolic pathways to ecosystems. The U.S. government's production and promotion of isotopes stimulated their consumption by scientists and physicians (both domestic and abroad), such that in the postwar period isotopes became routine elements of laboratory and clinical use. In the early postwar years, radioisotopes signified the government's commitment to harness the atom for peace, particularly through contributions to biology, medicine, and agriculture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)649-684
Number of pages36
JournalJournal of the History of Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • History and Philosophy of Science


  • Biochemistry
  • Cyclotrons
  • Ecology
  • Manhattan Project
  • Medical diagnostics
  • Metabolism
  • Oak Ridge
  • Radioisotopes
  • U.S. Atomic Energy Commission


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