BGU medical historian seeks 1940s irradiation victims in US

What doctors did not know then was that such radiation could cause thyroid cancer and other medical problems decades afterwards.

January 24, 2010 10:38
3 minute read.
BGU medical historian seeks 1940s irradiation victims in US

health scan 88. (photo credit: )


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Ben-Gurion University medical historian Prof. Shifra Schwartz has an odd mission - to find Jewish adults, now in their 60s and beyond, who as children in the US underwent low-grade radiation treatments for the skin disease known as ringworm. Schwartz, on BGU's faculty of Health Sciences' Prywes Center for Medical Education, is writing a book about victims of this procedure, in the early decades of the 20th century considered the "state-of-the-art" treatment for this condition. Ringworm usually infected the scalps of its victims; radiation was used to remove the hair with the root to eliminate the disease. The treatment was meant to minimize the pain the children were put through, because radiation made the hair fall out rather than having to pull it out or shave it closely. This treatment did not involve medical negligence, she insists. What doctors did not know then was that such radiation could cause thyroid cancer and various other types of tumors and other medical problems decades afterwards.

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Radiation treatment for ringworm was widespread during Israel's early years, says Schwartz, especially among Sephardi children from North Africa. When the dangers were realized, Israelis who took ill as a result regarded it as a matter of ethnic discrimination and emotional trauma, like arriving in the country and immediately getting sprayed with DDT. Even recently, the Knesset has dealt with related issues such as compensation for damage and suffering.

But the BGU historian insists the decision to radiate was not ethnically based: An American Jewish health insurance service named OSE radiated the heads of 27,000 Ashkenazi Jewish children who arrived in New York from Eastern Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1940s, about 4,500 Ashkenazi children who arrived were found to have ringworm, and about 2,500 were treated with radiation by OSE.

But no records were kept of those who received treatment, so those who have survived all these years probably don't know they are at high risk for possible consequences, Schwartz has informed The Jerusalem Post. Although research into ringworm treatment of this group has been conducted at New York University, the doctors who treat these Jews probably have no idea of their high risk for illness; some may have never heard of the skin disease or the standard treatment given so long ago, before an oral pill or liquid named Griseofulvin - effective in treating ringworm of the scalp - was put on the market in the late 1950s. Schwartz disclosed that special schools for immigrant children with ringworm were set up in New York so they could learn but not spread the disorder.

Schwartz is studying the effects of ringworm irradiation on children around the world, including Portugal (30,000 were treated in the early 1950s), Serbia (50,000) and Eastern Europe (27,000). She says children underwent radiation treatment throughout the US, thus the story is a universal one that should be investigated not only for historical reasons but also to follow up the possible victims.

The historian notes than unlike the US health authorities, the Health Ministry here issued instructions to all doctors to ask patients over 65 who have problems in their heads and necks whether they underwent radiation for ringworm in their youths. However, there was a special department in Washington, DC that has documents showing that ringworm was quite common in this era in various parts of the country.

After news of Schwartz's research was published in Serbia, hundreds of calls were received from people who as children had undergone radiation. In Portugal, a doctor who noticd a rise in thyroid cancer among his elderly patients investigated and found all had undergone radiation for the skin fungus.

Schwartz says she is looking for ringworm radiation victims from New York in the 1940 not because she can offer medical services but so they will finally be aware of the potential danger to their health and seek appropriate treatment. Their testimony will also contribute to documenting the story in her book and archival material. In addition, the data will enable her to prove that radiation of the heads of newly arrived Sephardi immigrant children was not ethnic discrimination.

Anyone with information can contact the Beersheba researcher at

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