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.

health scan 88 (photo credit: )
health scan 88
(photo credit: )

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

Radiationtreatment for ringworm was widespread during Israel's early years, saysSchwartz, especially among Sephardi children from North Africa. Whenthe dangers were realized, Israelis who took ill as a result regardedit as a matter of ethnic discrimination and emotional trauma, likearriving in the country and immediately getting sprayed with DDT. Evenrecently, the Knesset has dealt with related issues such ascompensation for damage and suffering.

But the BGU historian insists the decision to radiate was notethnically based: An American Jewish health insurance service named OSEradiated the heads of 27,000 Ashkenazi Jewish children who arrived inNew 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, sothose who have survived all these years probably don't know they are athigh risk for possible consequences, Schwartz has informed The Jerusalem Post.Although research into ringworm treatment of this group has beenconducted at New York University, the doctors who treat these Jewsprobably have no idea of their high risk for illness; some may havenever heard of the skin disease or the standard treatment given so longago, before an oral pill or liquid named Griseofulvin - effective intreating ringworm of the scalp - was put on the market in the late1950s. Schwartz disclosed that special schools for immigrant childrenwith ringworm were set up in New York so they could learn but notspread the disorder.

Schwartz is studying the effects of ringwormirradiation on children around the world, including Portugal (30,000were treated in the early 1950s), Serbia (50,000) and Eastern Europe(27,000). She says children underwent radiation treatment throughoutthe US, thus the story is a universal one that should be investigatednot only for historical reasons but also to follow up the possiblevictims.

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

Afternews of Schwartz's research was published in Serbia, hundreds of callswere received from people who as children had undergone radiation. InPortugal, a doctor who noticd a rise in thyroid cancer among hiselderly patients investigated and found all had undergone radiation forthe skin fungus.

Schwartz says she is looking for ringworm radiation victimsfrom New York in the 1940 not because she can offer medical servicesbut so they will finally be aware of the potential danger to theirhealth and seek appropriate treatment. Their testimony will alsocontribute to documenting the story in her book and archival material.In addition, the data will enable her to prove that radiation of theheads of newly arrived Sephardi immigrant children was not ethnicdiscrimination.

Anyone with information can contact the Beersheba researcher at