Delayed effects of external radiation exposure: a brief history

Radiat Res. 1995 Nov;144(2):160-9.


Within months of Roentgen's discovery of X rays, severe adverse effects were reported, but not well publicized. As a result, over the next two decades, fluoroscope operators suffered lethal skin carcinomas. Later, case reports appeared concerning leukemia in radiation workers, and infants born with severe mental retardation after their mothers had been given pelvic radiotherapy early in pregnancy. Fluoroscopy and radiotherapy for benign disorders continued to be used with abandon until authoritative reports were published on the adverse effects of ionizing radiation by the U.S. NAS-NRC and the UK MRC in 1956. Meanwhile, exposure to the atomic bombs in Japan had occurred and epidemics of delayed effects began to be recognized among the survivors: cataracts (1949), leukemia (1952) and severe mental retardation among newborn infants after intrauterine exposure (1952). No statistically significant excess of germ-cell genetic effects was detected by six clinical measurements (1956), the F1 mortality (1981), cytogenetic studies (1987) or biochemical genetic studies (1988). Somatic cell effects were revealed by long-lasting chromosomal aberrations in peripheral lymphocytes (1968), and somatic cell mutations were found at the glycophorin A locus in erythrocytes (1992). Molecular biology is a likely focus of new studies based on the function of the gene for ataxia telangiectasia (1995), a disorder in which children have severe, even lethal acute radiation reactions when given conventional doses of radiotherapy for lymphoma, to which they are prone. Also, obligate heterozygote female relatives can be studied for increased susceptibility to radiation-induced breast cancer, as suggested by clinical studies. The tumor registries in Hiroshima and Nagasaki now provide incidence data that show the extent of increases in eight common cancers and no increase in eight others (1994). The possibility of very late effects of A-bomb exposure is suggested by recent reports of increased frequencies of hyperparathyroidism, parathyroid cancers and certain causes of death other than cancer.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Abnormalities, Radiation-Induced
  • Cataract / etiology
  • Female
  • Forecasting
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Radiation-Induced / history
  • Nuclear Warfare
  • Pregnancy
  • Radiation Injuries / history*
  • Radiation Protection / history
  • Radioactive Fallout / adverse effects
  • Time Factors


  • Radioactive Fallout