Chernobyl by Robert Gale, 1986

What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.

Thus notes the TV show Chernobyl (2019). What happened at Chernobyl 33 years earlier was a deadly combination of flawed designs, poorly trained staff, disregard for safety and culture of secrecy and bureacracy. The Soviet Union did reject many offers of assistance from foreign governments, but it did welcome Dr. Robert Gale, a bone-marrow transplant expert from Bel Air, California.

The first Western physician to be invited by the Soviet Union to help since World War II, Gale coordinated shipment of medical equipment and perform bone-marrow transplants on 13 patients, five of whom survived (including the firefighter on the magazine cover above).

The Soviet Union barred the local doctors from speaking to the press, leaving only Gale and his American colleagues to become the faces of the medical response to the diaster. Soviet doctors would later note that some of the crucial transplant operations were before Gale and his team even arrived, but the doctor quickly became a hero in the Soviet Union. General Secretary Gorbachev personally thanked Gale and Pravda wrote hagiographic poems to him: “God is in Dr Gale, born the year of Hiroshima.” He was considered for a Lenin Prize and the Nobel.

For the Soviets, Gale, a colorful publicity seeking surgeon, became a source to manipulate the Western media. Gale was given access to various secured facilities and visit restricted areas (while being shadowed by the KGB), but was only fed information that the Soviets wanted to be released, which served to divert the media attention away from other stories that they wanted to conceal.

Yet Gale managed to take some photos of the patients and the medical facilities, and sold his story to Life magazine. (He flew over Chernobyl in a helicopter as well, but the Soviets did not allow him to take photos). He also went on to write a few books on the disaster and generally made a career out of Chernobyl — appearances on Barbara Walters, Donahue and Larry King shows, features in Time, Life, Vanity Fair — leading the satirical Spy magazine to quip: “Before, Gale was just a smart, maverick UCLA bone-marrow-transplant specialist who had briefly been in trouble with the National Institutes of Health for allegedly using experimental treatments on patients without proper authority. Today he’s a best-selling author (of an account of Chernobyl), frequent lecturer ($5,000 per) and extremely visible doctor-about-the-planet.”

It also later came out in a Los Angeles Times investigation that Gale designed and helped carry out experimental treatments on at least three Soviet citizens with a genetically engineered drug that had never before been tried on human subjects, nor approved for human testing.

Caption in French: Inert, almost mummified, they hope like so many others irradiated people a miracle of science


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