What in the World Does “Health Physics” Mean?

Dear Dr. Zoomie – what in the world does “health physics” mean? Why not use something easier to understand?

Funny you should ask – I’m traveling this week and when the guy sitting next to me on the plane asked what I do I told him I’m a health physicist. He started telling me about his back problems, his prostate, and his family history of insomnia. When he finally paused to take a breath, I explained that I’m a PhD and not an MD, and I was unable to help him out.

When the Manhattan Project got rolling, the higher-ups realized they needed to know more about the health effects of radiation and they needed to learn how to use it safely. At the same time, security was everything. – since we knew that Nazi Germany was researching nuclear weapons, we didn’t want to give away any information that could let them know we were working on them as well. Hence the term “health physics” instead of “radiation safety” was used describe helping protect people from the damaging aspects of working with radiation and radioactivity. Paul Frame, the historian of the Health Physics Society, quotes one of the first health physicists in one possible explanation of the term: “The coinage at first merely denoted the physics section of the Health Division… the name also served security: ‘radiation protection’ might arouse unwelcome interest; ‘health physics’ conveyed nothing.”

So this is why nobody knows what a health physicist is – it was intended from the start to be obscure. The best indication of its success as a code term? After 70 years nobody still knows what it means, and I still get beset with unwanted health information when I tell people that I’m a health physicist. Maybe I should start telling people I’m an industrial hygienist…but then they’ll probably think I mop floors and take out trash. Sigh….

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