Sometimes, there are events in history that end up tied to other events in history, in one way or another. On this day, December 9, 2003, Tehran, Iran was hit by unseasonably cold temperature, that led to the deaths of 40 people from hypothermia. It is very rare to see such large groups of people die in this way at the same time, but it does happen, as seen in Tehran. Their deaths occurred when their core body temperature fell to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. So, how does this have anything to do with history beyond 2003? Well, it actually does, and not in a good way.
Most of us, these days, know about hypothermia. In fact, the causes and the fixes are pretty well known, but what I didn’t know before, although maybe I should have, is that the information we have on hypothermia came from the horrible experiments that the Nazis performed on the prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp during World War II. These unethical medical experiments that were carried out during the Third Reich fell into three categories. The first category consists of experiments aimed at facilitating the survival of Axis military personnel. In Dachau, physicians from the German air force and from the German Experimental Institution for Aviation conducted high-altitude experiments, using a low-pressure chamber, to determine the maximum altitude from which crews of damaged aircraft could parachute to safety. Scientists there carried out so-called freezing experiments using prisoners to find an effective treatment for hypothermia. While the findings might have been a good thing, the way the experiments were carried out was horrendous. After these experiments, most people knew that if they were outside in frigid temperatures, they could die of hypothermia. Nevertheless, there were a few miracle situations, such as the two year old girl in Canada in 1994, who survived after her core body temperature dropped to 57 degrees Fahrenheit when she wandered away from her home in Saskatchewan.
The second category of experimentation involved developing and testing pharmaceuticals and treatment methods for injuries and illnesses which German military and occupation personnel encountered in the field. Apparently the Nazis felt free to find ways to save their soldiers lives, at the expense of their prisoners. At the German concentration camps of Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Natzweiler, Buchenwald, and Neuengamme, prisoners were subjected to immunization compounds for the prevention and treatment of contagious diseases, including malaria, typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, yellow fever, and infectious hepatitis. The Ravensbrueck camp was the site of bone-grafting experiments and experiments to test the efficacy of newly developed sulfanilamide drugs. At Natzweiler and Sachsenhausen, scientists tested prisoners with phosgene and mustard gas in order to find possible antidotes. Their lives simply didn’t matter when it came to the experimentation.
The third category of medical experimentation sought to advance the racial and ideological principles of the Nazi worldview. The most infamous were the experiments of Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. Mengele conducted medical experiments on twins. He also directed serological experiments on Roma Gypsies, as did Werner Fischer at Sachsenhausen, in order to determine how different “races” withstood various contagious diseases. The research of August Hirt at Strasbourg University also intended to establish “Jewish racial inferiority.” Other gruesome experiments meant to further Nazi racial goals were a series of sterilization experiments, undertaken primarily at Auschwitz and Ravensbrueck. There, scientists tested a number of methods in their effort to develop an efficient and inexpensive procedure for the mass sterilization of Jews, Roma Gypsies, and other groups that the Nazi leaders considered to be racially or genetically undesirable. It is difficult for me to even think about the cruelty that the Nazis inflicted on the Jews and Gypsies during those horrible years.
From the end of World War II, until the mid 1990s, the world was in the middle of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had developed atomic weapons, and they were threatening to use them. Tensions were high, because they were flexing all the military muscle they could. A common part of the administration was make sure that the people of the United States were ready for the very real possibility of an attack. The Eisenhower administration formed the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), later called the Office of Civil Defense, to instruct the people on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.
On this day, October 6, 1961, President Kennedy urged the people of the United States to build bomb shelters, so they could live through the nuclear fallout in the event of an attack. I was a girl of just five years, in 1961, but I vividly remember seeing those fallout shelters and knowing that it was possible that the day could come when we might have to take shelter there. That is pretty scary stuff for a five year old girl, but it was simply the world we lived in.
When I fast forward to this day and age, I have to wonder why some of the same precautions aren’t being put in place by this administration. We all know that Iran has nuclear weapons, and Russia, along with China, are beefing up their forces too. In many ways, the Cold War is in full force again, and no one seems to be reacting to the dangers. Maybe it is because we are getting used to the threat of nuclear war, but it still seems odd to me that there is not more preparation. Even I must admit that as a child, the fallout shelters were a source of unease for me, but now…even with the threat of nuclear war constantly in the news, I just don’t feel the same kind of concern…though maybe I should.
A fallout shelter was intended to reduce casualties in a nuclear war. It is designed to allow those inside it to avoid exposure to harmful fallout from a nuclear blast and its likely aftermath of radiation until radioactivity has dropped to a safer level. A basic fallout shelter consists of shielding that reduces gamma ray exposure. The most dangerous fallout has the consistency of sand or finely ground pumice, so a fallout shelter would not need to filter fine dust from air. The fine dust emits relatively little radiation. Concrete, bricks, earth, and sand are some of the materials that are dense or heavy enough to provide fallout protection. Basically this shelter could be much like a tornado shelter, except that it would need to have a door that seals completely.
Concrete was the most often used building material of fallout shelters, with walls at least 12 inches thick. The required shielding could be accomplished with 10 times the amount of any quantity of material capable of cutting gamma ray effects in half. Shields that reduce gamma ray intensity by 50 percent include 0.4 inches of lead, 2.4 inches of concrete, 3.6 inches of packed dirt or 500 feet of air. I suppose the main concern for most of us the difficulty building one of these shelters, Nevertheless, that is exactly what President Kennedy urged the people to do, and what many of them did do. It was terrifying stuff, and it makes you wonder what is wrong with people who would even consider detonating one of these nuclear bombs.