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Irma Thomas Downwinder Collection Edit

Summary

Identifier
WASH 035

Dates

  • 1953-2004 (Creation)

Extents

  • 4 Linear Feet (Whole)

Subjects

Notes

  • Abstract

    Irma Thomas materials related to her activism in the 1950s to 1980s to call attention to the hazards of radiation exposure from above-ground atomic bomb testing at the Nevada Test Site on citizens in Southern Utah called "Downwinders." The collection consists primarily of Thomas' notes, correspondence, writings, activist group meetings, research, legal documents, and a large collection of newspaper and magazine articles.

  • Biographical / Historical

    The Irma Thomas Downwinder Collection is comprised of papers compiled by Irma Selina Thomas, a longtime resident of St. George, Utah, related to her longstanding activism on behalf of "Downwinders," those persons in Southern Utah whom she believed suffered negative health effects from atomic bomb testing in the Nevada desert in the 1950s and 1960s. Irma Selina Thomas was born in Salt Lake City, Utah on 4 October 1906 and died in St. George, Utah on 29 September 1991. Thomas had been concerned since the early 1950s about the effects of radiation fallout when her seven children were young. Over the years she wrote numerous letters to U. S. officials and to whomever would listen to convince them that nuclear testing in Nevada resulted in higher rates of leukemia and cancer exhibited in persons in the St. George area. The term "Downwinders" refers to those who lived and worked closest to atomic test explosion sites, and those who were exposed to health risks due to ionizing radiation in the atmosphere. Downwinders were those individuals who lived in areas some distance from test sites and experienced higher concentrations of radiation exposure due to wind patterns over atomic tests sites. Tests were usually conducted when the wind was blowing east or northeast in order to avoid fallout over more densely populated areas to the south and west, including Las Vegas, Nevada and southern California. Thomas was interviewed by numerous television and newspaper outlets to protest the position by scientists who stated that nuclear blasts had no downwind effect. At the time of the testing, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) stated that the atomic tests would be conducted "with adequate assurances of safety." Residents of southern Nevada and Utah who lived downwind of the tests initially believed what they were told and would sometimes watch the blasts of light and fail to take cover. Declassified transcripts released from 1978 to 1980 show that scientists knew as early as 1947 that fission products released by atomic bomb tests could be deadly to humans and animals exposed during and after the tests. The AEC chose to ignore warnings from its own scientists and outside medical researchers and continued with a "nothing-must-stop-the-tests" rationale. In 1955-56, five lawsuits were brought by Iron County, Utah ranchers against the government alleging that atmospheric testing of nuclear devices in the spring of 1953 had damaged their sheep herds. The first case, Bulloch v. United States, came before the court of Judge Sherman Christensen in September 1956. The plaintiff’s attorney tried without success to convince the judge that the government was covering up unfavorable material to protect itself and its program. Judge Christensen ruled the government was negligent in monitoring the tests, but he ruled for the government on the crucial issue of whether damage occurred as a result of atomic testing. In 1979, congressional oversight hearings uncovered weighty evidence of AEC deception in 1956 and Judge Christensen reopened the suit. His fifty-six-page decision concluded that new information demonstrated that "a species of fraud" had been committed upon the court by government lawyers and federal employees acting "intentionally false or deceptive[ly][sic]." He also noted improper attempts to pressure witnesses not to testify, a vital report intentionally withheld, and "deliberate concealment of significant facts with references to the possible effects of radiation upon the plaintiffs' sheep." He set aside his prior judgment and granted the rancher's motion for a new trial. The U.S. Tenth Court of Appeals, however, rejected Judge Christensen's findings, maintaining that the material from the congressional hearings was not admissible under the rules of federal procedure. In the opinion of the appeals court, "nothing new" had been presented and it could see no reason to overturn the judgment of the court twenty-five years before. Within three to five years after atmospheric testing, leukemia and other radiation-caused cancers appeared in residents of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada living in areas where nuclear fallout had occurred. Twenty-four plaintiffs in one test case, Irene Allen v. United States, represented 1,200 individuals who were deceased or living victims of leukemia, cancer, or other radiation-caused illnesses. Judge Bruce Jenkins issued a landmark decision that awarded damages to some victims. The government appealed, and, in 1986, the Tenth Circuit Court reversed Jenkins's judgment. In January 1988 the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. In 1990, however, Congress passed and President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which created a $100 million trust fund to compensate citizens who lived downwind from aboveground atomic tests and later were stricken with radiation-related illnesses before warnings of potential danger were issued.

  • Scope and Contents

    This collection consists of four boxes comprising 48 folders primarily of printed or handwritten textual materials. Series I: Downwinder Activism, 1953-2002 contains notes, correspondence, meetings and activist group information, research and legal documents compiled by Irma Thomas. The content and dates for Series I are in Box 1 as follows: Folders 1-7 consist of Thomas' notes including names, addresses and phone numbers of relevant persons from 1979-1983, and her research notes related to the period of 1953-1983. Folders 8-21 consist of correspondence by and to Thomas including the periods 1953, 1969-70, 1977-84, including correspondence related to the Elisabeth MacDonald article, with Paul Jacobs, related to the John Wayne People Magazine article, with Judith Brussell, Ronald Nelson, Rosalyn Yakalow and Michelle Thomas. Folders 22-23 consist of meetings and activist group information covering the period 1976, 1980-82 and 1984, including the Dose Assessment Advisory Group. Folders 24-25 consist of research and technical information covering the period 1983-85, including radiation hazards information. Folders 26-27 consist of legal information covering the period 1979-80 and 1983 covering the movie proposal and the appeal of Bullock v. U.S. Series II: Publications, 1978-1980 contains newspaper and magazine articles collected by Thomas primarily from the period of 1978-1984 when the Downwinders claimed their illnesses resulted from radiation exposure during 1950s and 1960s-era above ground atomic bomb testing at the Nevada Test Facility. The articles cover the subsequent Federal court litigation in the United States District Court for the District of Utah in which plaintiffs claimed health injuries from the radiation exposure and brought the litigation against the United States government. The content and dates for Series II are as follows: Box 1 Folders 28-35 consisting of publications including the following: Army Reserve Magazine (1982), Family Health Magazine (1979); Government publications (1958-61, 1979, 1982-85); Life Magazine (1979-80); Mountain West Magazine (1979, 1981); New Age Magazine (1979); and Newsweek Magazine (1979, 1982-83). Box 2 Folders 1-9 consisting of publications including the following: People Magazine (1977, 1979); Plain Truth Magazine (1977, 1982); Rocky Mountain Magazine (1981); Saturday Review (1978); Time Magazine (1979); US Magazine (1979); U.S. News & World Report Magazine (1979, 1994); Utah Holiday Magazine (1982); and WIN Magazine (1980). Box 3 Folders 1-2 consisting of publications including the following: Belleview, Washington, Daily Journal-American (1978-79, 1982-83); Deseret News (1970, 1975, 1977-84, 1994, 2001-02, and undated folder); Las Vegas Review Journal (1982); Las Vegas Sun (1978-80, 1982-84, 1994); Los Angeles Times (1977-79); and Miscellaneous Newspapers and Journals (1955, 1957, 1978-83, 1994). Box 4 Folders 1-2 consisting of publications including the following: New York Times (1979 and undated); Parade Magazine (1968, 1978, 1981, 1983); Richfield, Utah, Reaper, (1979); Salt Lake Tribune (1955-1984, various years and undated); Seattle Times (1979-83); St. George, Utah, Spectrum (1978-84); The Star (1978-79); University of Utah publications (1979, 1981-83); and Washington County News (Utah)(1953, 1955, 1957, 1978-83).

  • Related Materials

    Nancy H. Williams Downwinder Collection (WASH 036) contains papers relating to political activism publications, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program, nuclear energy information, and articles and papers presented at the Frist International Nuclear Test Veterans and Atomic Bomb Survivors Conference, 25-30 June 1995, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.

  • Arrangement

    This collection is arranged into two series, Series I: Downwinder Activism, 1953-2002 and Series II: Publications, 1953-2002. The arrangement is chronological within Series I: Downwinder Activism housing notes, correspondence, meeting documents of activist groups, research and legal documents in Box 1 Folders 1-27. Series I folders 1 to 7 contains notes by Irma Thomas with names and addresses of relevant contacts in her activism and of victims. It includes her personal research notes, thoughts, and writings she prepared and presented based on research articles and published materials, including on the issue of radiation fallout. Folders 8 to 21 contains correspondence from and to Thomas, primarily from 1979 to 1984. Folders 22 and 23 contain documents, newsletters and pamphlets related to meetings and information of Downwinders activist groups. Folder 23 contains meeting minutes and reports by the Dose Assessment Advisory Group (DAAG), a Federal Advisory Committee Act Body appointed by the Secretary of Energy to provide guidance and advice on the work being performed by the Off-Site Radiation Exposure Review Project (ORERP) and its Dose Assessment Project of the Nevada Operations Office, U.S. Department of Energy. Folders 24 and 25 contains research and technical information collected by Thomas regarding radiation exposure hazards. Folders 26 and 27 contains legal documents related to a movie proposal about Thomas and her work with the radiation exposure issue, and an appellate brief in the Downwinders’ litigation, Bullock v. United States on an appeal from the U. S. District Court for the District of Utah to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The second series, Series II: Publications, houses newspaper and magazine articles organized alphabetically by name of publication and then chronologically for each publication. Series II includes publications Thomas collected from the 1950s to the mid-1980s and several others that were included in her collection through 2002 related to Downwinders’ issues and the Anti-Nuclear movement. The collection consists of related newspaper and magazine articles housed in Box 1 Folders 28-35, Box 2 Folders 1-9, Box 3 Folders 1-2 and Box 4 Folders 1-2. The largest collections are from the Deseret News, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Spectrum (St. George, UT), and the Washington County News.

  • Preferred Citation

    Item description & date, WASH 035 Irma Thomas Downwinders Collection, Dixie State University Special Collections & Archives.

  • Conditions Governing Use

    Reproduction and use of the materials in this collection are subject to copyright law. Dixie State University Library Special Collections and Archives holds the copyright to unpublished material in the collection that is not in the public domain. Permission to publish, quote, or reproduce must be obtained from the Special Collections Librarian and Archivist and a correct citation provided. A user may be asked to submit a "Request for one-time use of photocopies or reproductions" form in order to obtain reproductions.

  • Conditions Governing Access

    The collection is open and freely available to researchers during Special Collections' hours or by appointment. Reproduction and use of the materials in this collection are subject to copyright law. Dixie State University Library Special Collections and Archives holds the copyright to unpublished material in the collection that is not in the public domain. Permission to publish, quote, or reproduce must be obtained from the Special Collections Librarian and Archivist and a correct citation provided. A user may be asked to submit a "Request for one-time use of photocopies or reproductions" form in order to obtain reproductions.

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