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Mary Olson pays tribute to Rosalie Bertell, the great explainer of radiation impacts on health

My Six Mentors,   by Mary Olson, Gender and Radiation Impact Project, 1 January 20121 

“……………. Rosalie Bertell, PhD

It was Rosalie who most let me know that I am able to contribute original work towards the day that People, to decide not to split atoms any more. Human beings began splitting atoms in Chicago, in 1942. Rosalie, a PhD in mathematics and member of the Order of Gray Nuns, knew more than anyone else I have worked with, that all of it—every last nuclear license, and radioactive emission, all the waste and all the bombs and all the money congress gives to nuclear activities are choices. People made, and continue to make these decisions…and we can change our mind.

Rosalie studied radiation impacts and was committed to service on behalf of future generations. She won the Right Livelihood award for her work with communities impacted by nuclear industry. Often called the “alternative Peace Prize” – she was one of the first women to be honored. As a laureate, she was encouraged to find and mentor students. Rosalie hoped that I, and my coworker Diane D’Arrigo would go to graduate school and she could be our mentor. We decided since we were already in our 50’s to simply study with her, informally. We traveled, 5 or 6 times to the Mother House where she resided and she generously met with us in the last two years of her life. She was always small in stature, but at that point her back was bent and she barely came up to my chest, but still had the intensity of a wolverine!

It was Rosalie Bertell who helped me tackle one of the biggest challenges I have faced. After a public talk on radioactive waste policy that I gave during this time, a woman asked me if radiation was more harmful to women, to her, compared to a man. Even though I had studied and known many of the top independent radiation researchers, including Bertell, I had never heard that biological sex could be a factor for harm—other than in reproduction (pregnancy)—but that is more about the embryo and fetus than the woman. I told her that I was sorry, I did not know and would get back to her. In fact, I forgot.

Two years later, when nuclear reactors exploded in Japan at a site called Fukushima Daiichi, I remembered that question and knew it urgently needed an answer. I was unaware that Dr Arjun Makhijani and a team had written on sex differences in radiation harm in 2006 (see ) and also did not turn that up as I searched for any information on differences between males and females. My findings, five years later are an independent confirmation of the IEER work.

Since I found nothing on a basic google dive, I called Rosalie, who was at that point nearing the end of her life, to ask if she had studied biological sex. She had not, and the one report she pointed me to was out of print. It was my second call, a week later, that prompted her to tell me that I would have to look at the data myself.

I had no idea that the National Academy of Science (NAS) had published tables with 60 years of data on cancers and cancer deaths among the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rosalie told me to find out for myself. I was shocked. I had stopped any formal study of math in the 6th grade…she was a mathematician—I asked her to do it, and she reminded me that she was dying. I protested again. It was her next words that pushed me. Rosalie said, “The data is divided by males and females so you can look at this question—and if there is a difference, it will be a simple pattern. It is good you do not have more math because if there is a difference, you will find it and not make it more complicated than it is.” She said to get a few pencils, a sharpener, an eraser and lots of paper, and go to it. I did.

The result was my first paper on the topic, “Atomic Radiation is More Harmful to Women,” (October 2011) published to the web in time for Rosalie to congratulate me. Three years later the paper was the basis for my invitation to speak at the global Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons. Three years later as the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was in the work, I founded the Gender and Radiation Impact Project. Rosalie is the one who put rocket fuel in my determination to help. If the world decides to base radiation protection on Refence Little Girl—make every regulation in terms of protecting females who are infants—five years old, future generations have a chance. Rosalie is the one who modeled for me that it is possible to reach for the best possible outcome, and, indeed, we have an obligation to do so………..……


January 2, 2021 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, history, PERSONAL STORIES, radiation, Reference, women, Women

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