The life of eminent nuclear scientist and physician John Gofman ended last month just short of age 89. The New York Times obituary recounted his scientific résumé but ignored the backlash he faced from industry and government, simply describing him as a "nuclear gadfly." Gofman should be remembered for his brilliance and integrity, which are critical factors in the current debate over the future of nuclear power.
Gofman’s brilliance was evident early. His doctoral dissertation described co-discoveries of radioactive uranium-232 and -233, and protactinium-232 and -233, and the ability to transform uranium-233 into an atomic bomb. Soon after graduation, Gofman joined the Manhattan Project to help win the race with Nazi Germany for the first atomic bomb. His team at the University of California, Berkeley, made more than one milligram of plutonium–the most created to that point–leading to the plutonium bombs tested in New Mexico and used at Nagasaki.
After the war, Gofman settled in at Berkeley as a teacher and researcher, focusing not on radiation but coronary disease. His pioneering work on lipoproteins in the blood–HDL and LDL cholesterol–remains a cornerstone of cardiology. In 1974 the American College of Cardiology named him as one of the twenty-five leading researchers in the field over the previous quarter-century.
But the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union pulled Gofman back into the nuclear world. In the early 1950s the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) set up a nuclear weapons research lab at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, fifty miles from Berkeley. Gofman formed the lab’s medical department and worked part-time for several years, helping with calculations on health effects and problems of nuclear war before returning to Berkeley.
In late 1962, during the depths of cold war tensions, Livermore beckoned again. Massive atomic bomb testing by both superpowers was spreading fallout across the globe in unprecedented amounts, and the world came perilously close to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Gofman headed a biology and medicine lab; with an annual budget of more than $3 million, he formed a crackerjack staff of 150.
With scientists like Linus Pauling and Andrei Sakharov warning about hazards of bomb fallout, and with the government issuing repeated denials, a moral crisis was imminent for Gofman. Soon after he took over the lab, an official at Livermore asked him to help suppress publication of the work of AEC scientist Harold Knapp, who concluded that doses of radioactive iodine from bomb tests in Utah were much higher than the AEC had publicly admitted. Despite the warning that "we can’t afford to have him publish that evidence," Gofman reviewed Knapp’s analysis with his staff, and found it accurate. Refusing to yield to political heat, Gofman urged publication of the data, which the AEC reluctantly allowed.
Nuclear tensions eased after the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, signed by President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev, banned atmospheric nuclear tests. But the treaty did not mean the end of the battle over fallout’s harm. In 1969 University of Pittsburgh physicist Ernest Sternglass startled many when he published an article in Esquire magazine showing that for the first time in the twentieth century, the steady rate of decline in US infant death rates had halted as bombs were tested in the atmosphere. Sternglass calculated that 400,000 additional American infants died in the 1950s and early ’60s, and suggested that fallout was the cause.