Unreal nervousness

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In 1954, Harold Fry’s wife fell seriously ill with heart disease. The following year she developed cancer. Fry and his daughter nursed his ailing wife until she died in 1956. Only then, in the midst of his grief, did he discover that his son, John, living in England, was suffering from Hodgkin’s disease. Fry desperately embarked on ‘a horror voyage to England by the first available ship’, but was too late. John died on 24 June 1956, at the age of just 36. 1

John Fry was a talented radio engineer who worked on the development of radar in the CSIR Division of Radiophysics from 1941 to 1947. A few months after his death, Harold Fry learnt from one of his son’s former colleagues that his was not the only mysterious illness associated with the division. Further investigation convinced him that experimental apparatus used within the radiophysics laboratory had exposed staff to ‘dangerous irradiations’. Such ‘irradiations’ had probably caused his son’s disease, and the deaths of at least three others, but who knew the full cost of the division’s negligence? In August 1957, Harold Fry wrote to Prime Minister Menzies seeking that these matters be subject to a ‘full and open enquiry’. 2

Fry’s concerns were referred by the Prime Minister’s Department to CSIRO and the recently established National Radiation Advisory Committee (NRAC). This committee, Fry was informed, had been set up specifically ‘to advise the Government on the total problem of ionising radiations’. 3 Headed by Macfarlane Burnet, a respected medical scientist, and comprising ‘eminent scientists in the fields of medicine, biology and nuclear physics’, it seemed well-qualified to comment upon his son’s tragic death. Yet, for all its accumulated scientific wisdom, the committee felt unable to make any judgment on the case. 4 CSIRO made perfunctory inquiries, dismissing any link with John Fry’s illness, even though it admitted that some radiophysics staff experimenting with particle accelerators had been unwittingly exposed to dangerous, high-voltage x-rays. 5 CSIRO’s suggested response to Harold Fry insisted that his son had not been involved in the x-ray project, nor was he even in the same building. John Fry’s work, it was asserted, ‘could not involve any conceivable radiation hazard’. There were risks of course in the pursuit of science, for ‘research by its very nature of exploring the frontiers of knowledge can involve hazards which are difficult to foresee’. But CSIRO was confident that appropriate precautions were being taken. 6 This draft reply was never sent. Harold Fry heard nothing more for at least two years.

In February 1959, John Fry’s widow, Margaret, wrote to Macfarlane Burnet to ask whether his committee had examined the case as originally promised. Suffering from epilepsy, with a six year old child in her care, Margaret Fry wondered whether there was ‘any financial provision made for the dependents of men such as my husband who have given their lives in the service of the Commonwealth’. She worried that she would not be able to provide her son with ‘the education and home’ her husband would have wished. 7 The distinguished members of National Radiation Advisory Committee attempted once again to wash their hands of the matter, informing the anxious widow that questions of compensation were best dealt with by the Prime Minister’s Department. 8

Another round of investigations followed, with CSIRO formulating a more detailed report that confirmed their earlier conclusions. 9 Officials within the Prime Minister’s Department accepted their assurance, but a file note confessed to a ‘nagging doubt’. NRAC’s ‘reticence…to have an opinion recorded’ was troubling. 10 If the nation’s top scientists felt unable to comment, how certain could anyone be that John Fry’s death was purely coincidental. ‘In a matter of this nature we depend greatly on what the scientists say’, an earlier memo remarked, ‘but evidently the scientists themselves are not too sure where radiation begins and ends’. 11

‘Atomic energy’, Ernest Titterton argued in his book Facing the atomic future, ‘has been presented in extreme emotional terms’. 12 Both its benefits and dangers had been exaggerated in a way that hindered rational debate. Public understanding of the risks of atomic tests, for example, had been coloured by misinformation, ignorance and fear. Many had come to believe that radioactive contamination resulting from the tests would cause ‘gross genetic changes in the population’, leading to ‘the birth of ill-adapted individuals and “monsters”’. Such misplaced anxieties arose, Titterton maintained, because ‘objective scientific statements of the position’ did not ‘reach the public directly’. Instead of informed opinion, the public were fed ‘disturbing and garbled reports’ by the press that were ‘only partially understood’. Instead of gaining the benefit of reasoned analysis, the public fell prey to propagandists who exploited their ‘fear of unknown factors’ to stir opposition to crucial defence experiments. 13 The most pressing need of the ‘Atomic Age’, Titterton insisted, was a democracy educated in the ways of science.

The National Radiation Advisory Committee was established in 1957 in an attempt to restore some balance to public perception of the hazards associated with ionising radiation. There was a shuffling of physicists aboard the ship of state, as the government streamlined the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee, and appointed two of its former members to the new body. Titterton straddled both. While the Safety Committee retained responsibility for the effects of the atomic tests, the new committee’s brief encompassed not just radioactive fallout, but radiation from medical and industrial sources such as x-rays and isotopes. However, the government’s priorities were abundantly clear. The ‘primary reason’ for the committee’s formation, chairman Macfarlane Burnet stated at its first meeting, was ‘to maintain public confidence that adequate measures were being taken to prevent medical and genetic damage from tests of nuclear weapons carried out in Australia’. There was a ‘political requirement’ for ‘an uninvolved body’ to add its authority to the guarantee of public safety. 14

Burnet was confident that the committee’s reputation for independence would be boosted by his own appointment as chairman. There was in the public mind, he argued, a ‘traditional’ belief that ‘medical scientists of repute can be trusted to maintain intellectual integrity’ in matters concerned with health and well-being. 15 Burnet had learned the value of public reassurance in 1951, when he and two others had injected themselves with the myxoma virus to prove there was no link between an outbreak of encephalitis and the spread of myxomatosis through rabbit populations along the Murray River. Fears were calmed by this bold ‘experiment’, an act of scientific theatre. In a similar way, Titterton would, in later years, insist that the safety of the atomic tests was demonstrated by his own good health, claiming that he had received as high a dose of radiation as anyone else involved in the test program

‘My existence has been very much that of the scientist in the ivory tower’, Burnet modestly explained to his colleagues at the first meeting of the National Radiation Advisory Committee. Always most comfortable at the laboratory bench, the boy from Traralgon was a reluctant leader. While his ‘inborn shyness’ tended to steer him away from the public spotlight, his achievements in virology and immunology had won him international prominence. 16 The view from his ‘ivory tower’ swept boldly across Australia’s intellectual landscape. Appointed to a variety of government committees from the 1940s onwards, Burnet became interested in the underlying causes of many social problems. In particular, he began to speculate upon the biological roots of war. 17

In a 1950 Herald article, Burnet noted that physicists had been outspoken on threats to the survival of humankind. ‘Biologists have had much less to say’, he observed, ‘but it may be they have even better reason to raise their voices’. Pointing to the creation of ‘peck orders’ within groups of animals, Burnet argued that it was possible to examine ‘problems of conflict’ from ‘the standpoint of ecology’. By studying the ‘establishment and maintenance of dominance orders’ many aspects of human behaviour could be explained, the nature of society itself could be better understood, perhaps the threat of war could itself be diminished. 18 Only laughter, Burnet later admitted, refused to submit to the force of biological reduction. Burnet gathered his arguments under the title ‘Dominant mammal’, though he failed to find a publisher at the time. 19 Reflecting on his efforts some twenty years on, Burnet wondered whether his shyness had contributed to his interest in human ecology: ‘a harmless terror of strangers…may have made it easier for me to stand off and look at human beings as just another species of mammal’. 20

Burnet expected the National Radiation Advisory Committee to advise government both on measures necessary ‘to ensure the health and welfare of the Australian community’, and on ‘the best way to maintain a balanced appreciation of benefits against dangers’. While the atomic tests provided the most immediate challenge, Burnet hoped that the committee would ‘develop an importance for public health altogether more significant than its primary function of maintaining public confidence in Maralinga’. 21 While the ‘genetic dangers from ionizing radiation are real’, he told Prime Minister Menzies in the letter accepting his appointment as chairman, the ‘problem of stating the position clearly and acceptably to the public’ was ‘difficult’. It might help, he suggested, if the public were made to understand that it was not radiation that posed the greatest threat to ‘the health of the “genetic pool” of the community’, but the increased power of medical science to keep alive those with ‘genetic defects’, as well as ‘the higher fertility of the unintelligent’. 22 Public fears had to be brought to scale against an objective assessment of risk.

Responding to criticisms of the atomic test at Emu Field in 1953, Menzies confidently asserted ‘that no conceivable injury to life, limb or property could emerge from the test’. ‘No risk is involved in this matter’, he insisted, ‘the greatest risk is that we may become inferior in potential military strength to the potential of the enemy’. The ‘unreal nervousness’ generated by the tests was contrasted against the real threat of communist aggression. 23 Titterton provided a similar assessment, downplaying the dangers associated with fallout, while arguing that ‘the degree of risk involved’ had to be ‘balanced against the great importance of nuclear weapons to the security of nations of the free world’. 24 At a time of ideological conflict, when peace could only be maintained by strength and preparedness, the public’s ill-informed anxieties had to be measured against the truly terrifying prospect of global conflict. ‘Mankind need not fear nuclear weapon tests’, Titterton maintained, ‘but it should certainly fear all-out nuclear warfare’. 25

The destruction of Hiroshima heralded a new age of anxiety. The ‘terrifying’ power of the bomb tore at ideological fractures, with superpower rivalries descending into a battle for the very survival of humankind. 26 In a country still recovering from the threat of invasion, came visions of a new war: a war from which there could be no escape, no place to hide. 27 Political dangers multiplied as the bombs themselves grew bigger; rockets extended their global reach, and the winds carried their poison into homes, into bodies, into children yet unborn. The world was suffering under ‘a highly nervous tension’, noted the Argus in 1946, ‘at no time has mankind walked in such fear and regarded the future with such apprehension as now’. 28 Almost ten years later, the Herald argued that the Atomic Age would not lose its ‘atmosphere of dread’ until the new force had ‘ceased to be a weapon’. 29 A shaken Les Martin admitted to being ‘worried’ by the development of the H-bomb. Ever since the war, he remarked, ‘the whole structure of our lives has been dominated by fear—fear of one another, fear of not getting there before the other fellow’. 30

Although Ernest Titterton believed that the public’s fear of atomic energy was being exaggerated for political purposes, he accepted that ‘life in a modern complex civilisation’ was ‘a tense business’. The pace of change made it difficult for people to find ‘emotional plateux’ amidst the cascade of ‘peaks and chasms’. To save themselves from ‘unrealistic despair or equally unrealistic elation’, the individual had to strive to understand the true meaning of scientific advance. 31 While the influence of ‘fear and superstition’ had waned with the ‘popularisation of the rational outlook’, public perceptions of science were coloured still by ignorance and suspicion. Misunderstanding of science presented ‘serious hazards to both science and society’, Titterton insisted, ‘and we have to take steps to remove the difficulty’. 32 The future of society, democracy, of civilisation itself, rested upon the creation of ‘an informed public opinion on the issues of the technological age’. The challenges wrought by scientific progress had to be met by a renewed commitment to education and reason. ‘The one hope for survival’, Titterton argued, ‘is to seek rational solutions to our problems and not be stunned into inertia or muddleheadedness’. 33

It was a familiar prescription. Reformers had for many decades preached the importance of developing a citizenry conversant with the ideals and methods of science. Progressives, like Littleton Groom or HW Gepp, expected that a scientific approach to the problems of society would banish inefficiency and conflict. Primitive hatreds would whither as enlightenment nourished the minds of all, irrespective of rank or class. Public scientists, like Edgeworth David, invoked the spirit of science to displace the fripperies of modern existence. A respect for knowledge and rational thought would clear indifference and suspicion from the path of national progress. Activists concerned with the social relations of science, such as those involved with the AASW, believed that a well-educated populace gave society the strength to deal with ethical challenges of scientific and technological advance. Fear of the destructive capabilities of science would give way to a profound appreciation of its capacities for improvement. Progress offered an end to fear and prejudice, as the irrational follies of previous generations were discarded in the onward march of knowledge and reason.

But in the imagined triumph of knowledge over fear was embedded a much older struggle. From the time of the ancient Greeks, perhaps from the dawn of consciousness itself, humans have conceived of the mind as a battleground, where reason confronts emotion. ‘If the beam of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality’, exclaimed Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, ‘the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions’. 34 The scientific revolution armed reason with a method for distilling knowledge from the morass of mere sensation and feeling, for discovering a truth that was free from the deceits of the heart. Progress was to be found in the pursuit of objectivity, in the separation of fact from opinion made possible by the ‘experiment’.

EJ Bunting, the secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department, considered that ‘it would be appropriate and much more satisfying to the relatives’ if CSIRO’s report on the Fry case included a comment from the National Radiation Advisory Committee. 35 After all, Harold Fry had been informed that the committee would consider the case. Surely they could offer some words of reassurance. And they did. The sentence, ‘Sir Macfarlane Burnet confirmed that there is no known connection between Hodgkin’s Disease and exposure to radiation’, was added to the five page report. 36

What was Harold Fry hoping for? What did he expect? Did he want an explanation for his son’s death? An apology? As a warning of the dangers of radiation, his son’s death might yet have some meaning: through his sacrifice others might be saved. But if there was no cause, no reason, if his son’s life was cut short merely by the random occurrence of an ill-understood disease, there was no meaning, no-one to blame, nothing to be done. The ‘careful wording’ of Burnet’s assurance did not exactly close the case, though the evidence assembled by CSIRO was perhaps enough to convince a ‘reason-able’ man that John Fry’s death was not associated with his work. 37 And so the uncertainty surrounding the effects of radiation was replaced by another, bigger uncertainty. The reassurance offered to Harold Fry was that no-one knew why his son had contracted his illness, there was no explanation. It was tragic, it was unfair, it was pointless. What exercise of reason could hope to fill this void of meaning?

Progress is imagined as a bold voyage into the unknown, where knowledge and power are won through the ceaseless pursuit of the new. But while scientists forge ahead, it seems, the public often holds back. In the realm of the unknown loom new threats as well as promises, uncertainty breeds anxiety—is it worth the risk? The march of progress proceeds by trampling any ‘unreal nervousness’, liberating an oppressed people from the rule of their emotions. While knowledge and reason are the tools of an enlightened people, fear is something that lurks in the darkest recesses of our soul. Like a hungry monster it can be fed and manipulated by unscrupulous agitators, but set free it can grip a society, escalating into hysteria and panic. Fear, like Burnet’s ‘peck orders’, is a legacy of our animal origins. It is something to be studied, perhaps, in the behaviour of chickens or mice; a topic for objective analysis by a scientist whose ‘terror of strangers’ might enable him to observe the human condition at a safe and comfortable distance.

‘Babies will be freaks’, screamed a headline in the Melbourne Truth. The article reported that ‘secret tests by Australian scientists’ had ‘proved that the effects of radiation will produce freak babies and shocking abnormalities in future generations of human beings’. Its claims were based on the research of a CSIRO scientist which apparently demonstrated how exposure to radiation could produce a range of horrifying abnormalities in test animals. 38 The report was ‘not only disturbing but revolting’, HAS van den Brenk, a radiotherapist with the Cancer Institute Board, wrote angrily to the National Radiation Advisory Committee. ‘It inspires fear in a community’, he argued, ‘by submitting for public consumption, an uncritical and emotional account of so called “secret” results’. 39 He demanded that the committee take action to correct such misapprehensions, and urged them to investigate means by which press reports on scientific topics could be vetted by appropriate experts. The committee agreed the article could cause ‘much unnecessary distress’. 40

The effects of radiation seemed particularly prone to distortion. Attempts at reassurance struggled not only with the people’s ignorance, but with their vulnerability to persistent subconscious fears associated with violation and impurity. Radiation was an invisible poison that threatened to rob humankind of its ability even to procreate. Freak babies, like freak weather, seemed the inevitable consequence of continued interference with nature. Against an objective assessment of risk were projected the anxieties of generations. But this was not, as Titterton imagined it, merely evidence of the continuing need for scientific rationality to cut superstition out of the public mind. It was a battle also over the meaning and implications of uncertainty itself.

Van den Brenk noted in his complaint to the National Radiation Advisory Committee that there was no ‘secret’ about the fact that ionising radiation could cause birth abnormalities, this had been known since 1906. 41 The question was not if radiation was dangerous, but how much radiation was dangerous. As in the case of the missing Monte Bello cloud, official pronouncements sought to avoid any complexity. William Penney wielded a Geiger counter before Australian journalists to demonstrate that such familiar items as a luminous watch dial yielded counts greater than those observed from fallout. 42 No-one bothered to recall the fate of the ‘radium girls’, whose jaws rotted away after they used their tongues to sharpen radium-dipped brushes to paint such dials. 43 But the certainty with which scientists pronounced upon the risks of radioactivity was undermined by H-bombs that were bigger than expected, by Japanese fishermen who were unexpectedly irradiated, by radioactive clouds that refused to follow the script. When coupled with the increased specialisation of science, and the mysterious hold of the ‘atomic secret’, such events contributed to a feeling that information was being withheld, the real risks were not being explained. ‘These matters must be put to an adult people as if they were adults, and not children frightened of the dark’, argued the Sydney Morning Herald. 44

Further complicating the assessment was the disturbing tendency of scientists to disagree. ‘Nothing is more extraordinary or more maddening’, complained the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘than the continued inability of eminent scientists to make up their minds about the dangers of atomic tests’. 45 Titterton’s continued assurances were challenged by John Blatt, a physicist at the University of Sydney. ‘The possibility of serious damage, even ultimate disaster for the human race’, he argued, ‘is by no means as remote as the eager bomb-throwers would have us believe’. 46 The Safety Committee’s pronouncements upon the spread and significance of radioactive fallout were also questioned in a bitter struggle with the CSIRO biochemist, Hedley Marston. 47 ‘You and I have no means of judging these things for ourselves’, a columnist in the Age reflected, ‘is atomic science so inexact that the advice of recognised experts must range all the way from the rose-colored to the frightening?’ 48

Mrs M Senior found reason for hope amidst such disagreements. Writing to the Sydney Morning Herald, she welcomed as ‘a mercy’ signs that ‘scientists, editors and ordinary people’ were ‘not yet anaesthetised to emotional and moral responses—to basic human instincts for survival’. 49 Fear of radiation was not merely the result of ignorance or superstition, it was a response to a nagging feeling of uncertainty. It was not just that scientists disagreed, or their assurances were undermined, it was also the possibility that the real hazards of radiation might be expressed, not now, but sometime in the future. Proof might be found by generations to come in their growing tally of illness, death and abnormalities. And so the uncertainty surrounding the effects of radiation might be replaced by another, bigger uncertainty—how could they let it happen? What exercise of reason could hope to fill this void of meaning?

Progress claims the future as its own, as the realm in which the problems of the present will inevitably be solved. This confidence is bought at the cost of the individual’s loss of control; change is propelled from outside, by larger forces, more knowledgeable minds, by the expression of reason itself. What is left when this trust is challenged, when uncertainty refuses to die? Faith in progress is replaced by the fear that we may be ‘mere experimental objects in a universal laboratory’. 50



Notes:

  1. Letter from Fry to FM Burnet, 19 September 1957, NAA: A463/17, 57/3982.
  2. Letter from Fry to RG Menzies, 27 August 1957, NAA: A6456/3, R069/003.
  3. Letter from AS Brown (Secretary, PM’s Department) to HW Fry, 18 September 1957, NAA: A463/17, 57/3982.
  4. Minutes of the 3rd meeting of NRAC, 6 November 1957, NAA: A6456/3, R069/003.
  5. ‘Draft – Reply proposed by CSIRO’, NAA: A6456/3, R069/003. The death of WC Rowe from leukemia was attributed to work on this x-ray project, which was the subject of an extended investigation, see: ‘Death of Mr JA Fry’, 29 June 1959, NAA: A463/17, 57/3982; ‘Report on the work of Mr JA Fry in the Division of Radiophysics, CSIRO’, undated (1959), NAA: A463/17, 57/3982; letter from JR Moroney to FM Burnet, 17 October 1957, A6456/3, R198/010.
  6. ‘Draft – Reply proposed by CSIRO’, NAA: A6456/3, R069/003.
  7. The letter is transcribed in the minutes of the 13th meeting of NRAC, 30 April 1959, p. 4, NAA: A6456/3, R069/004.
  8. Letter from JR Moroney (Secretary, NRAC) to Mrs JA Fry, 23 June 1959, NAA: A463/17, 57/3982.
  9. ‘Report on the work of Mr JA Fry in the Division of Radiophysics, CSIRO’, undated (1959), NAA: A463/17, 57/3982.
  10. ‘Note for file’, 1 December 1959, NAA: A463/17, 57/3982.
  11. ‘Death of Mr JA Fry’, 29 June 1959, NAA: A463/17, 57/3982.
  12. Ernest William Titterton, Facing the Atomic Future, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1956, p. 6.
  13. Titterton, Facing the Atomic Future, p. 272.
  14. ‘Minutes of the first meeting of the National Radiation Advisory Committee’, 10 June 1957, NAA: A6456/3, R069/003.
  15. ‘Minutes of the first meeting of the National Radiation Advisory Committee’, 10 June 1957, NAA: A6456/3, R069/003.
  16. For biographical details see Christopher Sexton, The seeds of time: the life of Sir Macfarlane Burnet, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991.
  17. Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Dominant mammal, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1970, pp. 2-3.
  18. Frank Macfarlane Burnet, ‘Biology, not H-bombs may solve our future’, Herald, 8 February 1950, p. 4.
  19. A revised version was published in 1970.
  20. Burnet, Dominant mammal, p. 2.
  21. ‘Minutes of the first meeting of the National Radiation Advisory Committee’, 10 June 1957, NAA: A6456/3, R069/003.
  22. Letter from FM Burnet to RG Menzies, 24 April 1957, NAA: A6456/3, R069/011.
  23. CPD, vol. HofR1, 21 October 1953, p. 1610.
  24. SMH, 9 March 1955, p. 4.
  25. Ernest William Titterton, ‘The facts about radio-strontium and risk to life’, SMH, 25 April 1957, p. 2.
  26. SMH, 8 August 1945, p. 1.
  27. John Murphy, Imagining the fifties: private sentiment and political culture in Menzies’ Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000, ch. 7.
  28. Argus, 22 July 1946, p. 2.
  29. Herald, 28 December 1955, p. 4.
  30. Herald, 29 March 1954, p. 2.
  31. Titterton, Facing the atomic future, pp. 5-6.
  32. ‘Education for an atomic age. A public lecture delivered in the Australian National University series on Tuesday, May 17th, 1955, by Professor EW Titterton’, Titterton papers, Basser Library, MS168, item 4/33.
  33. Titterton, Facing the atomic future, p. 7.
  34. William Shakespeare, Othello, Act I, Scene 3.
  35. Letter from EJ Bunting to FG Nicholls (CSIRO), 14 October 1959, NAA: A463/17, 57/3982.
  36. Letter from FG Nicholls (CSIRO) to EJ Bunting (Secretary, PM’s Department) 19 November 1959, and the accompanying ‘Report on the work of Mr JA Fry in the Division of Radiophysics, CSIRO’, NAA: A463/17, 57/3982.
  37. ‘Note for file’, 1 December 1959, NAA: A463/17, 57/3982.
  38. Melbourne Truth, 3 May 1958, p. 28.
  39. Letter from HAS van den Brenk to Chairman, NRAC, 5 May 1958, NAA: A6456/3, R198/020.
  40. Letter from JR Moroney to Secretary, PM’s Department, 8 May 1958, NAA: A6456/3, R198/020.
  41. Letter from HAS van den Brenk to Chairman, NRAC, 5 May 1958, NAA: A6456/3, R198/020.
  42. ‘Joint press conference by the Hon Howard Beale…and Sir William Penney’, 14 August 1956, NAA: A6456/3 R030/075.
  43. This story is told in Catherine Caulfield, Multiple exposures: chronicles of the radiation age, Secker & Warburg, London, 1989, ch. 4.
  44. SMH, 23 February 1955, p. 2.
  45. SMH, 5 June 1957, p. 2.
  46. John M Blatt, ‘Danger from atom tests is an unknown quantity’, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 December 1955, p. 2.
  47. Roger Cross, Fallout: Hedley Marston and the British bomb tests in Australia, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2001.
  48. Age, 25 June 1956, p. 1.
  49. SMH, 7 June 1957, p. 2.
  50. SMH, 8 March 1955, p. 2.

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