The year 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. It also marks the 65th anniversary of an early example of international outreach and cooperation through surgery.
An American-educated pastor, Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, was one of six survivors profiled in John Hersey’s classic Hiroshima, first published as an article in The New Yorker in 1946. His Hiroshima Methodist Church would later provide a rudimentary support group for a number of local technical high school students who were burned and disfigured by the blast. Although an American entity in postwar Hiroshima, the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, was studying late effects of the new weapon, its mandate was diagnostic, not therapeutic. In fact, only one visiting plastic surgeon—Truman Blocker, MD, FACS, Galveston, TX—operated on a single patient.
Wheels set in motion
In May 1955, after a number of visits to Japan to meet with Reverend Tanimoto, Norman Cousins—the influential editor of the Saturday Review, a peace activist, and an advocate for nuclear disarmament—helped spearhead the visit of 25 young women Hiroshima survivors to the U.S. It was not an easy task. The project was fraught with political and financial pitfalls; the State Department had concerns that these visits would be viewed as some sort of apology for dropping the bombs that many felt hastened the end of World War II. There also was concern that the public’s sympathy for these young women would fuel communist propaganda and anti-government sentiment. Meanwhile, the Japanese were suspicious that the women were to be further exploited or used for experimental surgery. Alternatively, there was the implied affront that health care in Japan was not up to Western standards.
Ultimately, almost a decade after injury, these Hibakusha (the Japanese term for people affected by the bomb) were brought to the U.S. for treatment of their scars and deformities. The chief of plastic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York, NY, Arthur J. Barsky, Jr., MD, and internist William N. Hitzig, MD, accompanied Mr. Cousins to Japan to examine potential patients. Stateside, Dr. Barsky’s plastic surgery colleagues—Sidney Kahn, MD, FACS, and Bernard E. Simon, MD, FACS—also would volunteer their services. Mount Sinai donated their facilities, including four inpatient beds. Several Japanese physicians came to New York to chaperone, as well as to observe the techniques and treatments being used.
Hiroshima Maidens receive care and comfort
The “Hiroshima Maidens,” as they became known, stayed in private homes in the New York City vicinity as they prepared for or recuperated from numerous operations. The living arrangements had been worked out through the generosity of the Quaker community and their Friends’ meetinghouses. Real and lasting familial bonds eventually transcended considerable cultural and socioeconomic differences, including the language barrier. In all, the plastic surgery team performed approximately 140 separate operations on these young women over a one-and-a-half-year period. The physicians and patients became popular symbols of goodwill and understanding between the two countries that had previously been enemies.
War often yields advances in surgery and medicine. Perhaps in the case of the Hiroshima Maidens, the terrible injuries, both physical and psychological, did put a more public and personal spotlight on the devastation of the new nuclear weapons. The U.S. surgeons and physicians who treated the Maidens had no political agenda; all had served ably in the U.S. Armed Forces during wartime. Their goal was simply to be of help and comfort, one patient at a time.
As a result of his efforts, Dr. Barsky became the first honorary member of the Japanese Plastic Surgical Society. In the 1960s, Dr. Barsky cofounded Children’s Medical Relief International and set up a pediatric plastic surgery unit in Saigon, Vietnam. Sadly, Saigon was in a new war zone, but Dr. Barsky was driven by the same noble mission to care for and train anyone in need of his talents and compassion.
The author would like to express his gratitude to Arthur J. Barsky III, MD.
Barker R. The Hiroshima Maidens: A Story of Courage, Compassion and Survival. New York, NY: Viking Penguin; 1985.
Barsky AJ, Kahn S, Simon BE. Principles and Practice of Plastic Surgery. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
Chisholm A. Faces of Hiroshima. London: Jonathan Cape; 1985.
Hersey J. Hiroshima. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf; 1946 (originally published in The New Yorker, August 31, 1946).
Hughes C, Barsky E, Hagander L, Barsky A III, Meara J. Better to light a candle: Arthur Barsky and global plastic surgery. Ann of Plast Surg. 2013;71(2):131-134.