Gale was there, in Moscow’s Hospital Number 6, famously taking care of people injured in the nuclear plant disaster. He is also the author of two books that address Chernobyl, other nuclear accidents and radiation in general: “Final Warning” and “Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know.”


How much of the HBO miniseries was true? How much was just truthy?

“Knowing the limited resources available to my Soviet colleagues to deal effectively with an event of this magnitude, I contacted Mr. Gorbachev through Armand Hammer, offering my help and that of my colleagues at the International Bone Marrow Transplant Registry (now the Centre for International Blood and Marrow Research),” Gale writes. “Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador to the U.S., called me the next day, asking me to come immediately to Moscow. Two weeks later, I recruited two UCLA colleagues (Paul Teraski and Richard Champlin) and one colleague from the Weizmann Institute in Israel (Yair Reisner) to help.

“I spent the following two years mostly in the Soviet Union, working with my colleagues at the Institute for Biophysics and Clinical Hospital 6, dealing with a bit more than 200 persons with acute radiation exposures. In the subsequent 30-plus years, I have been involved in several studies of the long-term medical consequences of the accident—initially in the ex-Soviet Union, and later in the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belorussia; more details as the series progresses.”

Gale’s central question: Does historical fiction give writers the license to wander away from historicity?

Trying to put the Chernobyl disaster in historical perspective, Gale writes: “I knew each of the firefighters intimately, including the 29 who died. I never heard one of them express regret over what they had done to contain the Chernobyl disaster. These men are the real heroes.

“In the miniseries, the liquidators are portrayed as being coerced into their mission. I interviewed many of them at the time of the accident, not 30 years later. Almost everyone I spoke with volunteered. Anyone with knowledge of Russians will recognize how these people respond to adversity. Recall Napoleon’s 1812 excursion into Russia, or the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in WWII. These people are tough; 20 million Soviets died fighting the Nazis. The notion that most liquidators were conscripted against their will shock people who know Russians respond to adversity: they thrive on it.”

Gale’s series of four essays is among The Cancer Letter’s most read stories in 2019, and it has been quoted worldwide. We have just given the Russian news publication Kommersant Nauka permission to excerpt and translate Gale’s essays.

To drill deeper into the Chernobyl story, you might want to look at Gale’s detailed account of becoming one of the first two humans to be injected with GM-CSF. The drug, which is used extensively in cancer and is now approved for boosting survival in people acutely exposed to myelosuppressive doses of radiation, was first used to treat Chernobyl patients at Hospital Number 6 (The Cancer LetterMay 29, 2015).