Letter from Linus Pauling to Willard F. Libby, United States Atomic Energy Commission
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1957-05-10 (May 10, 1957)
Libby, Willard F.
United States Atomic Energy Commission
Original Repository: Oregon State University. Library. Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers
Reproduced with permission of the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers. Oregon State University Library.
Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
Two Nobel Prizes
10 May 1957
I am glad to give you the information that you have requested in your letter of 2 May.
First, I must say that the speech that I gave in Chicago was not on radioactive fall-out. It was a talk to the Chicago Section
of the American Chemical Society on abnormal hemoglobins in relation to disease. Toward the end of the talk I said that the
progress of medicine in the treatment of individuals with defective genes causing disease such that they would die if they
were not given medical treatment would in the course of time lead to a deterioration of the pool of human germ plasm. I mentioned
that bad genes are produced afresh from time to time by cosmic rays and other mutagenic agents, including a very small relative
effect of fall-out radiation, and that if we did not allow the individuals who inherited the bad genes in double dose to die,
but kept them alive and healthy, the steady-state concentration would increase. This was the only reference to this matter
and my talk.
After the talk was over several people came up to me and asked questions about the magnitude of the radiation effect due to
fall-out. I said that this effect was very small compared with other effects, perhaps one percent, but that in an absolute
sense it could have some damaging effect on individuals -- that I had made the estimate that there would be 1000 deaths from
leukemia if another superbomb were detonated by the British this summer. One man then stated that he was a reporter. The
American Chemical Society people told me that reporters never came to this meeting, but the meeting at which I spoke provided
an exception to this generalization.
I have made use of a large amount of published information and information that I have obtained by listening to lectures,
for example by Professor Harden Jones of the University of California at Berkeley, in forming my own estimates of biological
effects of radiation, including fall-out radiation.
I find that my statement that I estimated that a thousand deaths from leukemia would result from another superbomb detonation
(5 megatons of fission) was based upon some calculations that I had made using information given in a manuscript by E. B.
Lewis. I may say that I had not intended to make a public announcement of this estimate -- I was talking to only a few people,
and I did not know that one of them was a reporter. The estimate can be made in the following way. According to Professor
Lewis, strontium-90 in 0.001 MPC (r/year) would cause, during the lifetime of the individual, an incidence of 5 x 10 to the
-6 leukemia, which, for a population of 2.5 x 10 to the 9 would be 10,000 cases. I considered 0.001 MPC as being the average
effect over the lifetimes of the individuals affected from 50 megatons of fission, and took one tenth of this for a single
superbomb, giving 1000 as the result of our calculation.
I am sure that Professor Lewis could give you details of his arguments that are not contained in the copy of his manuscript
that has been, I understand, sent to your office.
If you have any questions about the other estimates that I have made and publicly announced, please let me know.