“It won’t hurt and it may save a life.”
--Dr. Omar Samuel Budge, proponent and practitioner of civil defense blood-type tattooing, 1951
INTRODUCTION TO THE EXPANDED ARTICLE
CONELRAD originally published the article, Atomic Tattoo, in 2006. Since that time a lot more information has come to light about the history behind the short-lived Cold War-era practice of tattooing people with their blood-type and Rh symbol. In the last four years, CONELRAD has also received a number of comments from persons who remember their childhood experience of receiving their “atomic tatts” while in grade school. The following expanded version of our earlier article incorporates all of this new information and riveting testimony.
One of the stranger civil defense measures resorted to during the early Cold War was the practice of having school children wear emergency identification dog tags in preparation for an atomic attack. Annabeth Gish’s character models one these unsightly survival accessories for her appalled aunt played by Ellen Barkin in the 1950-set film Desert Bloom. CONELRAD also posted real-life recollections from a grown-up dog tag kid named Laura K. Graff back in 2003.
A lesser known, but infinitely more peculiar initiative that was promoted during this panicky period was the tattooing of blood-types on citizens—including children—in anticipation of the sure-to-be chaotic medical triage environment that would follow an atomic bombing. According to a 2008 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, this idea came about during the early 1950s when blood banks were running low due to increased demand for blood overseas during the Korean War. The concept of a pre-typed “walking blood bank” (i.e. a living, breathing human being) that could easily be found in a centralized registry was proposed as a solution to the problem. Blood-type tattooing, which was viewed as a potential time-saving benefit for post- attack transfusions, was part of the overall proposal, but it never gained traction outside of two small regions of the United States.
The first call for widespread blood-type tattooing came in June of 1950 from Dr. Theodore Curphey of the New York State Medical Board. In August of 1950, officials of the Pennsylvania State Civilian Defense office unveiled plans to blood-type every resident in their state. Neither of these plans was ever executed for a variety of reasons including lack of trained staff and cost.
The most influential proponent of blood-type branding, however, was Dr. Andrew C. Ivy, a highly respected physician and academic from Chicago. The doctor may have been inspired by his time in Germany testifying as a medical expert at the Nuremberg War Crime Trials to recommend the use of blood-type tattoos in civilian defense. It was during this period that he was almost certainly exposed to the fact that the Waffen-SS required the tattoo of their elite forces as a contingency to expedite medical treatment. 
As one of the leaders of the Chicago Medical Civil Defense Committee (CCDC), Dr. Ivy approved, in July of 1950, a program for the voluntary blood-type tattooing every citizen in the city. But by December, even though the plan had been approved by the Chicago Medical Society and the Board of Health, it stalled and it was never implemented. Neighboring Lake County, Indiana, though, picked up the baton in the spring of 1951.
Indeed, the Lake County Medical Association (LCMA) adopted the Chicago plan for their area and Dr. Ivy and Dr. S. Levinson from the CCDC assisted in its implementation. After an initial trial run in which five-thousand residents were typed and issued a plastic card with a smear of their blood sample, it was decided that the card method might not be effective in an emergency (i.e. a person might not carry it at all times).
Because the blood-type card was deemed to be inadequate, tattooing was used instead—quickly introduced to the county under the catchy banner of “Operation Tat-Type.” The effort got underway at a summer fair where approximately six-hundred and fifty adults submitted themselves to the Burgess Vibratool and its antiseptic ink needle.
The instrument left a permanent 3/8 inch blood-type with Rh mark on the left side of the chest. Dr. Ivey appeared at the fair and complimented everyone for their support of “tat-typing.” Before the end of 1951, fifteen-thousand adults had been blood-typed with sixty percent of those volunteering to go the extra step to receive the tattoo.
CONELRAD reader Doug Wray’s atomic tattoo
In January of 1952 the LCMS and the local civil defense office expanded Operation Tat-Type to include all school children. The kids at five elementary schools in Hobart, Indiana were the first to experience the Vibratool needle. The program then moved on to the high schools and continued throughout the county for the remainder of the year. It was during this period that the Pentagon and the Army became interested in the possible military applications of blood-type tattooing. An aide to the general of the fifth Army, Donald Compton, went so far as to get his own tattoo, but the military never instituted Operation Tat-Type.
Less than a month after Dr. Ivy’s Chicago tattooing plan was reported in the Chicago Tribune in August of 1950, two brothers were promoting a similar plan in Logan, Utah. One of the siblings, Dr. Oliver Wendell Budge, graduated from Northwestern University Medical School in 1931—a period during which Dr. Ivy was teaching physiology at the school. The other sibling, Dr. Omar Samuel Budge, would eventually take the lead in promoting the Utah version of the program, even coining a slogan to help sell it: “It won’t hurt and it may save a life.”
The August 18, 1950 edition of the (Logan) Herald-Journal reported on the doctors’ blood-typing talk before a local civic luncheon—a curious venue considering the less than appetizing subject:
Serious and important matters were on the docket as part of the program of the Logan Rotarians at their luncheon period this week. An overall view of the civil defense program, with special reference to blood-typing and tattooing, with demonstrations, was presented.
Dr. Omar Budge, chairman of the committee in charge of the blood-typing program in Cache County, explained the life-saving advantages of having every person’s blood tested and the type of his blood recorded on the person’s skin by a simple tattooing process…
The article goes on to describe the preparations for emergencies and then conveys the admonishments of the speakers:
…Both the doctors emphasized the importance of a prompt and willing response on the part of every citizen to the blood testing program, and to every other call made by civil defense authorities, as a patriotic duty…
According to the newspaper account, most of the assembled Rotarians duly heeded this invocation to action by availing themselves of the doctors’ services before the end of the luncheon. While one doctor spoke to the audience, the other physician demonstrated the process using volunteers—a free meal and a tattoo!
The following year, on May 17, 1951, a full-fledged “Walking Blood-Bank Drive” was announced to the residents of Logan in the pages of the Herald-Journal. This time, however, the term “tattoo” was nowhere to be found in the promotion of the event. Instead, the more benign phrase “permanent imprint” was used:
…Cost of the program will be $1 per person. This includes blood type, Rh factor, and a permanent imprint of blood type and factor in the skin under the left arm…
The Herald-Journal’s May 22, 1951 front page featured a photograph of ElRay L. Christiansen, president of the Logan Mormon temple, getting his blood typed. This was no doubt part of an effort to allay the concerns of the Mormon population that the program violated church rules prohibiting tattoos. Indeed, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made a special allowance for the tattooing initiative and even permitted blood-typing to take place in the basement of Christiansen’s tabernacle.
The unusual dispensation eventually found its way into official church bylaws. The following passage appears in the book of Mormon Doctrine by Elder Bruce R. McConkie on page 775 of the second edition (1966):
Tattoos are permanent marks or designs made on the skin by puncturing it and filling the punctures with indelible ink. The practice is a desecration of the human body and should not be permitted, unless all that is involved is the placing of a blood type or an identification number in an obscure place.
END OF A CIVIL DEFENSE FAD
By 1952, the Utah program was on the wane and “every resident of Cache and Rich counties who wanted one—from toddlers on up—was sporting a blood-type tattoo…” In 2006, a reporter with the Herald-Journal interviewed Dr. Merrill Daines, one of the few doctors still living who was involved in the program. Dr. Daines told the newspaper that the tattoos were “questionable, but never questioned.” He added that “we (doctors) went along with this because we were asked to do it, first of all, and second, we were afraid the Russians would bomb us…” Daines also revealed publicly for the first time that neither he nor members of his family were ever tattooed.
Daines was not the only one doubting the propriety of civil defense blood-type tattooing. It was criticized before it even got off the ground by the Committee on Blood Banks of the American Medical Association. In 1950 the agency stated that the practice of mass blood-typing and marking was “inadvisable, costly and hazardous.”
According to the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, the blood-type tattooing programs in Indiana and Utah came to a gradual end in 1953—coinciding with the end of the Korean War and the resulting stabilization of domestic blood bank supplies.
The Journal cites these other reasons for why the tattooing concept failed to catch on nationally:
- It was thought that most doctors would not trust the predetermined blood-type tattooed on a patient.
- The American Medical Association and the Federal Civil Defense Administration supported the administration of plasma to patients—without regard to blood-type—in an emergency to avoid potentially fatal transfusion errors.
- The biblical prohibition against tattooing (Leviticus 19:28, King James version).
- A general consensus that blood-type tattoos would be rendered useless in an atomic bombing because of the likelihood of extensive burns on the wounded.
- Concerns about the possibility of infection accompanying the imprinting of the tattoo.
- Concerns about the amount of time, expense and effort required to implement the tattooing program on a large scale.
The negative connotation of tattooing left over from the Nazi concentration camps could not have helped the cause of civil defense branding much either, even if what was voluntary.
The Father of Atomic Tattooing, Dr. Andrew Conway Ivy, passed away in 1978. Aside from this odd chapter of his career, the doctor is perhaps best known for his fanatical embrace of the controversial “anti-cancer” drug Krebiozen (derived from the blood of horses infected with the disease “lumpy jaw”), denounced in 1951 by the AMA and later banned from interstate commerce by the FDA.
Ivy lost his vice-presidency at the University of Illinois because of his unyielding position on the efficacy of the drug while at the same time his bank account grew thanks to the number of people he was treating with it. In 1964 he and several others wound up on trial for fraud for promoting and selling the drug. After his acquittal in 1966, Ivy vowed to continue treating patients with Krebiozen. Despite the jury’s decision, the doctor’s once sterling professional reputation never fully recovered.
ATOMIC TATTOO TESTIMONY
Shortly after we posted our first article on the subject of “atomic tattoos” on CONELRAD.com, we began receiving e-mails from readers describing their experiences undergoing the blood-typing procedure as school children in the 1950s. Most of the submissions that we have received to date come from people who grew up in towns in Lake County, Indiana. We do not have an explanation for the dearth of contributions from the Beehive State, but we hope to receive even more feedback with the publication of this expanded version of our story.
In 1998, Logan, Utah native Colonel T.C. Skanchy wrote a compelling first-person account of his 1951 blood-typing / tattooing that occurred when he was in the seventh grade. Skanchy remembered the events as they unfolded after he obtained signed permission from his parents to partake in the branding process:
…We were organized in the same manner the military gives mass vaccinations to GIs. Long lines of excited, chattering students snaked toward the little semi-private booths. The blood type and Rh factor were determined—with questionable accuracy. We then moved to another booth where the tattoo was painfully etched into the skin with an ink smeared device that looked and felt like a wood-burning iron. The boys were quite stoic, able to muffle any cries of pain. We lads relished hearing some of the girls letting out lengthy owwwwwws. It was a festive and exciting day. All seemed proud to entered the atomic age…
The following recollections are from CONELRAD readers. The text below is used with permission.
I received my atomic tattoo at Holy Angels Catholic Grammar School in Gary, Indiana. I think I was seven. I don't remember any dog tags, but I do remember the white card with the circles on it. I don't remember how many circles. Now I know why everyone thinks I'm crazy when I tell them about my tattoo that I got in grammar school. My tattoo is very easy to read. I don't remember it hurting, just kind of a buzzing when they "fired the gun." I do remember screaming because I was scared.
--Patricia Wallace, August 6, 2010
I was in the fist grade in 1953 at Washington Elementary at 11th and Wright St. [in Gary, Indiana]. We were taken to the gym where the cafeteria was located and waiting till our turn came. When they opened the office door where the tattooing was taking place the sight of a vat of steaming instruments was more than I bargained for as I thought it was a branding iron. It took two nurses to drag me into the room and hold me down for the tattooing. I still have it to this day.
--Randy Haslett, submitted July 14, 2009
My three sisters and one brother were tattooed under the left armpit in 1953 in Milford, Utah. I myself had the blood drawn an tested but was so afraid that I ripped my older sisters ear ring out and ran home screaming and hide under the bed, so I didn't get one. I have never heard of anyone else having this. INTERESTING.
--Shirley [last name not published by request], submitted June 1, 2009
My brother, Craig, and I were participants in this program, in the early 50's. This took place at Timothy Ball Elementary School in Crown Point, Indiana. I was about 9-10 and he 6 or 7. We had to get a signed consent form from our parents. They [parents] were not present during the tattooing, which is surprising. It took place during the school day in the auditorium. We had our finger pricked to determine our blood type and with that, paper in hand, we moved through the line for the tattoo. I remember it was a large, black, hand-held instrument. It was over very quickly and tickled more than hurt, as I recall. I am so glad to finally learn about this [civil defense practice]. All of my previous efforts at discovery have been in vain. Thanks.
--Ellie M. Davis, submitted March 2, 2009
I received one of these tattoos while attending St. Mary School in Griffith, Indiana. I still have the plastic covered blood type card with the three circles. It was probably 1953 because I was born in February of 1945, went to public school for kindergarten and then went to St. Mary Catholic School for grades 1 through 8 in Griffith, Indiana. It really wasn't a bad experience. My Uncle who was a doctor, passed away, didn't have any problem with us going through this procedure and it didn't harm anyone.
--Jacquelyn Rochford Siebrandt, submitted January 2, 2009
I grew up in a small town in northern Utah (Slaterville, near Ogden). I was probably 4 or 5 years of age and remember going to the local elementary school (Plain City Elementary) for the tattoo. My brother, who is 3 years older, also has a tattoo. My father was a World War II Vet, having flown 25 missions in a B-17 and being one of the lucky ones to return home. My Mother and Father did not get tattoos, but I suppose their thinking was that there was a very real threat of some form of attack in the future. Ogden, Utah is home to Hill Air Force Base. My memory is of my Father and Mother holding me down, tears and the sounds of other children crying. Periodically, I think perhaps this was just a dream, but the tattoo is still somewhat visible under my arm. I am now 59 years old. I live in New Jersey and when I tell this tale to friends, it always produces a look of amazement on their faces.
--Becky [Last name not published by request], submitted December 29, 2008
"I got mine in 1953 at Our Lady Of Perpetual Help school in Hammond, Indiana. There was no charge and my mother thought if it was free, so why not? I remember standing in line with all the other boys. The girls went through a separate time. When it was my turn, I asked the man if it would hurt? He said not one bit. He lied! As a result my O+ is very lopsided. I remember getting the card with three circles on it but no dog tags. I recently met a guy at my gym in Southern California who got his tattoo in Crown Point, Indiana.
--Jim Plummer, submitted September 30, 2008
I was another "victim" of this program. I was in the first grade at the Whiting, Indiana primary school in the spring of 1953 (May, I think.) The experience was so horrendous that I remember, in detail, everything that transpired.
First, we were given permission slips to take home for our parents to sign. There was even a charge for the procedure--50 cents. On the day of the ordeal the first thing that happened was that we stood in a long line to have our thumbs pricked with a needle. They then squeezed our blood onto a 3"x5" card that had three circles on it, each circle containing a different drop of fluid and, ultimately, a drop of our blood. This must have been how they determined our blood type. After the fluid and blood had enough time to dry, the cards were put into a plastic sleeve and given to us. (I kept mine for years but finally threw it away when I found it in a desk drawer decades later.)
At some point we were also given a metal dog tag on a chain and told that we were to wear the dog tags all the time (presumably so that our bodies could be identified after a nuclear attack.) The dog tags had our name, blood type and RELIGION and maybe our address embossed in raised letters. The back of the tag had a piece of paper with lines on it and, I think, the same information that was in the raised letters. We then took the dog tags and the 3"x5" cards into a large room that had about 20 little chairs in a line along the wall leading to an area behind a curtain. We were told to sit in the chairs.
The kid closest to the curtain was told to go inside the curtained area, and the rest of us moved up one chair closer. We then heard a buzzing sound similar to a dentist's drill, and a lot of screaming and, a few minutes later, the kid emerged from behind the curtain, crying, and then next kid took his place. The wait probably took about an hour, and during that time, as we inched closer and closer to the curtain, we had to witness each of our classmate's enter the curtained area and come out crying, so you can imagine how frightening it was.
Once behind the curtain I had to take off my clothes above the waist and show my card and dog tag to the two people in there. One held me still and the other stuck what looked like a power drill into my left side, turned it on and held it there for a minute or two. Naturally I was screaming and struggling just like the other kids before me.
"I still have my atomic tattoo (O-), but, as I grew it got distorted, so it's pretty illegible today. The tattoo caused a lot of comments during bikini season after I went to college and later moved to Ohio, where no one had seen anything like it. After I moved back to northwest Indiana I tried to search some public records but was never able to find any evidence of the program.
Naturally, there are still a lot sixty-something atomic tattooed people in northwest. I have met some of them and have learned something more about the program: evidently it was widespread throughout Lake County. I have met people from Hammond, Hobart and Gary who have atomic tattoos, and most of them can vividly remember the day it happened to them because it was such a terrible experience that they never forgot it.
One interesting thing: all of the people with atomic tattoos I have met are either my age or older. None are younger. That suggests that the program was discontinued after that one year (1953). I have heard that one of the reasons they pulled the plug on it was that some of the children had blood types that did not match either of their parents, so the guys who were thought to be their fathers... uh..really weren't, so in the interest of family unity they decided to nix the whole thing. Thank goodness.
--Marcia Gaughan, submitted May 29, 2008
I too was a recipient of an "O+" tattoo onto my left-side. I was a 1st grade student at St. John's Lutheran Grade School in the Tolleston section of Gary, Indiana in 1953. All I can remember is a hundred screaming kids, first having their fingers pricked to determine the blood type (now that hurt!), followed by joining the line to have the type tattooed into their sides. Mine also is as legible as the day it was tattooed, and when I tell people about it, they're absolutely incredulous, that such an event could occur. You certainly wouldn't have that in today's world. I never realized the "atom bomb" connection with the typing, but of course back in those days--it was the norm--just like ducking under your desk in case of a nuclear explosion. Thanks for the memories.
--Thomas A. Hodges, submitted April 24, 2008
I lived in the Tolleston area of Gary, Indiana. I can remember like it was yesterday when I got my tattoo of my blood type when I was in kindergarten. I remember it really hurt and my parents knew nothing about me getting it. I have told many people about it but they have had no idea what I was talking about. Of course I have showed it to my family so they were aware of it. My son said to me yesterday look at this on the internet. It was this story about the tattoos in Gary!! I couldn't believe it. It was just like I remembered it. Under the desks at school and all! Thanks for making me aware that others know about it also! I was in kindergarten in 1953 at Tolleston grade school.
--Jim Towle, submitted January 7, 2008
I was a resident of Gary, Indiana and am the recipient of a tattoo of my blood type, O+ which is still visible today. I was around kindergarten age, 5 or 6 so this took place in the very early fifties. The administration of this tattoo was in the local public school, Jefferson school I believe. There were a number of us who received this tattoo and we were told it was because of the chance of atomic attack, so should we survive, we could be treated properly. Gary had a very active steel facility at the time.
--Dan Penny, submitted April 13, 2007
I believe the year was 1952 in Gary, Indiana, Glen Park Grade School when me (6th grade) and my sister (5th grade) had our blood types tattooed on our left side under our arms. The plan was from then on to have every 5th grader so tattooed. No permission was sought from parents and when the kids came home with the tattoos parents were very upset. The most common remark was, "this is not Nazi Germany!" The nurse used a gun-like instrument with the blood type needles that would plug in and place the ink under the skin. Me and my sister are both Type A+ and the tattoos are still there.
Editor’s Note: This submitter followed up the above recollection with these additional details: My sister's name is Gerry and the year could have been 1951. I was in 6th grade 1951-52. The blood typing and tattooing was done in an open class room with no booths as remembered by [another commenter] from Utah. One of the boys in my class fainted when tattooed and another boy cried. The girls seemed braver than the boys in my class. This was embarrassing to me as a boy.
--Jack Hiner, submitted February 26, 2007
First and foremost, we would like to thank Elizabeth K. Wolf for being the first person to alert us to the phenomenon of civil defense blood-type tattooing. At the time that Ms. Wolf reached out to CONELRAD, she was a medical student researching a scholarly history (with Dr. Ann Laumann) on the subject (see bibliography below). We provided Ms. Wolf with some of the leads that we were able to develop independently, but it is not clear from the citations in the resulting article whether any of them were used.
Extra special thanks to Doug Wray for providing us with a photograph of his very own atomic tattoo. To read more about Doug’s tattoo experience, read his December 12, 2006 blog entry on the subject. There are posts by other tattoo recipients on this page as well.
Thanks to all of the Cold War kids who permitted CONELRAD to share your amazing stories.
Thanks to reporter Lexie Kite for helping us with archival newspaper clips.
“The Use of Blood-Type Tattoos During the Cold War,” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, March 2008 by Elizabeth K. Wolf and Anne E. Laumann; pp. 481-476 [Editor’s Note: This article, with 39 footnotes, is the definitive scholarly history of the civil defense blood-typing programs of the early 1950s. It can be purchased in PDF form at ScienceDirect.com].
“Sign of the Times,” [Logan, Utah] Herald-Journal, August 2, 2006 by Lexie Kite.
Findings of Fact, U.S. District Court of Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, case No. 1:99CV1193, United States v. John Demjanjuk, p. 36 [Editor’s note: In this court document, it is noted that the defendant, an accused Nazi war criminal, admitted to having received a blood-type tattoo].
“Remembering the Cold War,” [Logan, Utah] Herald-Journal, October 21, 1998 by T.L. Skanchy.
Mengele: The Complete Story [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986] by Gerald Posner and John Ware, pp. 62-63.
“The Krebiozen Verdict,” Time magazine, February 11, 1966.
Mormon Doctrine [Second Edition, 1966] by Elder Bruce R. McConkie, p. 775.
“Tattooing,” Science Digest, October 1952 by William Kaufman, Ph.D., M.D.
“O.K. Blood Type Tattoo As Aid In Atom Attack,” Chicago Tribune, August 1, 1950 by Roy Gibbons.
 “The Use of Blood-Type Tattoos During the Cold War,” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, March 2008 by Elizabeth K. Wolf and Anne E. Laumann; pp. 472-473. This same article, on page 475, states that “by 1948 [before the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb], the Committee on Blood Banks of the American Medical Association had concluded that an integrated plan was needed to organize donors [as a contingency for an emergency]…”
 Ibid. pg. 473.
 Ibid. pg. 474. It is also interesting to note that Gerald Posner and John Ware report in their book “Mengele: The Complete Story” (pp. 62-63) that Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele’s lack of a blood-type tattoo enabled him to avoid closer scrutiny during his initial detention and interrogation after World War II. During his induction into the SS, Mengele successfully convinced his superiors that he did not require a tattoo.
 Wolf and Laumann, p. 474. Note: One reason why the Chicago program may have been scrapped is because of expense – In the Chicago Tribune article “Seeks $200,000 to Type Blood of All in City,” October 27, 1950 by John H. Thompson, it was reported that Dr. Ivy was to ask Mayor Martin H. Kennelly for $200,000 to implement the blood-typing tattooing plan. Kennelly, who was up for reelection, most likely turned Ivy down.
 Wolf and Laumann, p. 474. Note: On page 473 the authors report that in the winter of 1950-1951 two pilot studies on blood-typing/tattooing were conducted in Jackson, Michigan and in the “industrial plants around” Boston and Amherst, Massachusetts. A survey of 665 “selected respondents” in Jackson found that 72% of the persons blood-typed carried dog tags (with their blood-type embossed on a metal tag) and 60% stated that they would refuse tattooing.
 Ibid. pp. 474-475.
 “Doctors Talk to Rotary On Blood-Typing,” [Logan, Utah] Herald-Journal, August 18, 1950.
 “Walking Blood Bank Slates Typing Day,” [Logan, Utah] Herald-Journal, May 22, 1951.
 “Sign of the Times,” [Logan, Utah] Herald-Journal, August 2, 2006 by Lexie Kite.
 “Bars Blood-Typing Action,” New York Times, October 14, 1950.
 Wolf and Laumann, pg. 475.
 Ibid. pg. 472.
 “The Krebiozen Verdict,” Time magazine, February 11, 1966.
 “Remembering the Cold War,” [Logan, Utah] Herald-Journal, October 21, 1998 by Colonel T.C. Skanchy.