This project analyzes the portrayal of Dr. Robert Peter Gale in Western media. Dr. Gale was personally invited by Gorbachev to the USSR to assist with treating those with the worst cases of radiation poisoning. However when looking closely at what Dr. Gale was doing in the USSR, one must wonder about his political motivations for his work and question the efficacy of his treatments.
In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, one man became known in the West as the premiere health specialist when it came to treating radiation victims. Robert Peter Gale was heralded as a pioneer in bone marrow transplants and his expertise in host-versus-graft disease, developing techniques that are the standard today. However, his work with the victims of Chernobyl is heavily criticised and is largely considered to have had no real effect on the survival of his patients. Meanwhile, the contributions from the Soviet doctors who were instrumental in saving the lives of radiation victims went largely unsung. Although his suitability for treating radiation victims was questionable at best, Dr. Gale was touted as a hero in Western media, serving as the figurehead Western audiences crave.
Since Dr. Gale first visited Chernobyl, he has become the subject of several hundred articles in newspapers all around the world, conducted countless interviews, and published two books about radiation and his experiences in Chernobyl. The media has portrayed Dr. Gale as a leading figure in radiation medicine and nuclear disaster response. In one Australian newspaper, The Advertiser, Dr. Gale is glowingly described as “an unparalleled expert on the medical response to a nuclear disaster” and another article detailing Dr. Gale’s work in the USSR published in The New York Times Magazine is titled “The Chernobyl Doctor,” again indicative of the way Western media viewed Gale as the leading authority (Pine). These articles, among others, paint Dr. Gale as the Western savior during a Soviet disaster. Dr. Gale became a voice the media thought they could trust and a propaganda device, used to make the USSR seem incompetent and primitive. It was due both to this media obsession over the American doctor and systematic censorship that certain individuals were severely marginalized.
A common theme among many of these Western news sources is the lack of any real credit to Soviet doctors who were years ahead of the Americans when it came to radiation medicine. In the Australian newspaper article mentioned above, the author completely omits any mention of the leading Soviet doctor for radiation treatment, Dr. Angelina Gus'kova. At the time Gus'kova had been working with victims of radiation poisoning for so long she “developed a compendium of knowledge on radiation medicine that had no equivalent in the world” (Brown 15). In Dr. Gale’s own recount of his experiences in the USSR, he mentions “[w]hat impressed me the most...was a system the Soviets had developed for determining the amount of radiation each patient had absorbed” (Gale and Hauser 55). In her summary of the history of radiation medicine in the Soviet Union, Dr. Gus'kova states this refined system had been developed almost 30 before the Chernobyl disaster. This reality stands in stark contrast from the way Western news sources were reporting on the disaster. Undoubtedly there was heavy media bias against Dr. Gus'kova as the Soviet government played a role in suppressing the voices of their own doctors and manipulating the flow of information that was released.
Dr. Gale’s presence in the USSR mainly resulted in him becoming a figurehead for the media to obsess over. Dr. Gale himself has previously described his role as largely being an observer for much of his time spent there. In his book, he speaks about his helicopter ride over the site of the accident, his visit to Kiev (a large city near Chernobyl that was not evacuated) with his family, tours of Soviet facilities, and various meetings he had with government officials. The USSR barred their doctors from speaking to the press, leaving only the American doctors, who would be trusted by the Western press, to become the dominant voices. Dr. Gale was given access to different secured USSR facilities and allowed to visit restricted areas, meanwhile the KGB was incredibly vigilant when it came to stopping other foreign access to information (Brown 29). When the foreign press was looking to conduct interviews with civilians the KGB would monitor everything and undercover agents would even step in to retort against reporters who were conducting street interviews (McMullen; Brown 30). With so little access to information, Dr. Gale became a vital source for Western press, which the USSR was able to manipulate. Despite all the privileges Dr. Gale seemed to have, even he was only fed information that the government wanted to be released, which served to “[divert] the media away from a much larger drama taking place elsewhere... to which Gale had no access” (Brown 31-32). The Soviets were able to use the media’s unwavering belief in the legitimacy of Dr. Gale’s word to their advantage and gain a significant amount of control over the narrative emerging from Chernobyl. The USSR knew that the foreign press would place the most trust with a non-Soviet figure, and that is exactly what they were able to provide the press.
The individualism of Western culture was something that was picked up on by Soviet doctors, who questioned the efficacy of the treatments used by Dr. Gale. Gus'kova criticized both Dr. Gale and American doctors in general saying, “the excellent professionalism of our Western colleagues is limited to very narrow fields'' and “American or British specialists often have no idea of Soviet, German and French achievements, to the detriment of their diagnostics” (Guskova; qtd. in Taubman). This criticism is due to the fact that Dr. Gale’s expertise was restricted to bone marrow transplants, which is not an effective method of treatment of acute radiation syndrome (ARS). A report published by the International Commission on Radiological Protection “emphasised the positive role of medical management in patients with severe ARS, and the minimal role to be played by bone marrow transplantation (BMT) or stem cell transplantation” (60). Furthermore, Dr. Gale was testing new drugs and procedures on patients without proper approval (Brown). Dr. Gale arrived in the USSR with almost no experience in regards to medical management for acute radiation syndrome and an ineffective and experimental mode of treatment. It becomes apparent how under qualified Dr. Gale truly was when it came to treating radiation victims and his misleading portrayal by the Western Media.
Even today, Dr. Gale is still perceived by the media as a nuclear disaster expert and a hero of Chernobyl. Dr. Gale went to Moscow with the intent to save lives and bridge the gap between East and West, but was swept up into a larger political scheme of which he had no control over. While neither the USSR or Western press is free of blame when it comes to Dr. Gale’s over-blown image, the flaws of Western solidarity and individualism are key issues that must be considered here.
- Brown, Kate. Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. W W Norton, 2020.
- Euronews. “The Medical Response in the Aftermath of the Chernobyl Disaster.” Euronews, Euronews.com, 26 Apr. 2016.
- Gale, Robert Peter., and Thomas Hauser. Final Warning: the Legacy of Chernobyl. Warner Books, 1989.
- Gus'kova, A. K. “Fifty Years of the Nuclear Industry in Russia—Through the Eyes of a Physician.” Atomic Energy, vol. 87, no. 6, Dec. 1999, pp. 903–908 IRCP “ICRP PUBLICATION 118: ICRP Statement on Tissue Reactions and Early and Late Effects of Radiation in Normal Tissues and Organs — Threshold Doses for Tissue Reactions in a Radiation Protection Context.” Annals of the ICRP, vol. 41, no. 1–2, Feb. 2012, pp. 1–322.
- McMullen, Jeff. “Chernobyl Three Months after Disaster | 60 Minutes Australia.” 60 Minutes Australia, 12 June 2019.
- Pine, John. "A nuclear SWAT team in fall-out from Chernobyl.” The Advertiser, April 25, 1987 Saturday.
- Rubin, David M. “How the News Media Reported on Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.” Journal of Communication, vol. 37, no. 3, 1 Sept. 1987, pp. 42–57.
- Taubman, Philip, and Special To the New York Times. “Chernobyl Toll Now 23; More Deaths Expected.” The New York Times, 30 May 1986.
Chris Folk ‘23 intends on majoring in Environmental Studies. He high jumps for the track team and enjoys photography.