Prof. Robley D. Evans of MIT Dies at 88

Dr. Robley D. Evans, professor emeritus of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, winner of the 1990 Enrico Fermi Award and a pioneer in studying the effects of radium on the human body, died December 31 in Paradise Valley, AZ, where he lived in retirement. He was 88.

His family said the cause of death was respiratory failure.

There were no services.

Professor Evans was a founder of nuclear medicine and established the standard, used throughout the world, for the maximum permissible body burden of radium.

The Department of Energy said in its citation accompanying the Fermi Award, that Professor Evans did pioneering work "in measurements of body burdens of radioactivity and their affects on human health, and in the use of radioactive isotopes for medical purposes."

The Fermi Award is the highest scientific award given by the DOE. It recognizes "exceptional and altogether outstanding scientific and technical achievement in the development, use or control of atomic energy. The award honors the memory of Enrico Fermi, the leader of the scientists who achieved the first self-sustained, controlled nuclear reaction.

The DOE added that Professor Evans, as a founder of nuclear medicine, "occupies a special place in the history of radiation physics and biology and the development of our understanding of radiation effects today. He has had a unique impact on radiation biology."

It was at the California Institute of Technology, as a graduate student in the late 1920s and early 1930s, that Professor Evans's task for his doctoral thesis (under Nobel laureate Robert A. Millikan) was to measure background radiation coming from the earth, so that it could be distinguished from cosmic radiation.

With this experience, he gave special attention to the victims of radium poisoning, a national scandal in the twenties. The painters of luminous watch dials in factories had made a practice of pointing their brushes with their lips and thus ingested radium. Radium had also been used indiscriminately in tonics and other medical application in the belief that it was close to a cure-all and it had been handled carelessly by people in industry. Once in the body, it usually became concentrated in the bones, continuing to emit potentially dangerous radiation and often causing cancer or creating a skeletal condition that resulted in spontaneous fractures.

Professor Evans began his studies of the biological effects while a National Research Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley. After joining the MIT faculty, he established the Radioactivity Center and developed the meter arc method of measuring the amount of radium in the body as indicated by gamma radiation--a method still considered the most reliable and often referred to as the "Evans method."

The center no longer exists, but through the years it studied more than 900 individuals, in some cases arranging for the exhumation of bodies to determine the amount of radium present. One subject, a woman who had received a massive quantity of radium in a medicine over a long period of time, lived to be 93 years old and willed her body to the center so that a final examination could be made.

Professor Evans had estimated that by the year 2000 more than a hundred persons who have ingested significant amounts of radium will still be living. At his suggestion, the Atomic Energy Commission established a Center for Human Radiobiology, located at Argonne National Laboratory, to ensure long-range observation of such cases. The center functioned until recently and has now been discontinued.

The research Professor Evans did at MIT enabled him in 1941 to establish one ten-millionth of a gram of radium as the "maximum permissible body burden" -- the greatest quantity of a radioactive substance that the human body can tolerate without a likelihood of damage, allowing a large margin for safety.

Creation of such a standard was crucial because the United States was about to embark on its atomic bomb program, in which large numbers of researchers and workers would be encountering radioactive materials in unprecedented ways. The standard is still internationally used today and is applied to various radioactive substances including plutonium-239 and strontium-90.

The Radioactivity Center also produced the first iodine isotope for a number of medical purposes, using neutrons from discarded radium and radon needles from Boston hospitals.

Professors Evans had undertaken this line of research, which contributed to the beneficial use of radioactivity, with Dr. James Howard Means of Harvard Medical School. In 1937 they began to explore the use of radioactive iodine for the diagnosis and treatment of goiter.

Since iodine taken orally rapidly moves to the thyroid glands, "radioactive cocktails" containing an iodine isotope enabled physicians to study the metabolism of the glands by measuring the radioactivity with a Geiger-Muller counter. Radioactive iodine, in appropriately higher dosages, also proved effective in the treatment of hyperthyroidism.

Professor Evans's accomplishments in medical physics included development of a technique to preserve human whole blood, research primarily undertaken for the benefit of wounded servicemen in World War II.

His breadth and interest in medical physics was demonstrated by his personal participation in such diverse studies ranging from histochemistry of human skin to carcinogenesis in humans.

Professor Evans was invited to the faculty at MIT in 1934 to establish the world's first academic course in nuclear physics.

For more than two decades his book, "The Atomic Nucleus," was a basic text for graduate students in nuclear physics. Published in 1955, the book has been reprinted and revised and, even today, is still frequently cited.

In 1938, Professor Evans was responsible for building the Markle Cyclotron, MIT's first "atom-smasher" and the first cyclotron in the world for biological and medical use.

The machine was completed in 1939 and its first product was iodine-130, a 12-hour isotope which was much more useful than iodine-128 with which the medical experiments started and which had a half life of only 25 minutes--barely enough time for adequate observation. The cyclotron was also used in fundamental nuclear and industrial research and remained in service for some three decades.

During World War II, the cyclotron produced isotopes for three dozen research centers in the Boston area. Working with scientists and physicians from MIT and the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Evans attacked the problem of preserving whole blood.

By using as many as two radioactive forms of iron and one of iodine--a so-called "triple tracer" experiment--doctors could determine how well transfused blood cells remained in a recipient's blood stream. A chemical was found to preserve the blood for up to three weeks, the time it required to reach distant battlefields and subsequently was used in blood banks for several decades.

Professor Evans also was responsible during the war for analyzing uranium from the Belgian Congo destined for use in atomic bombs, an agreement having been made that radium recovered in processing would be returned to Belgian authorities. His responsibility was to make an accurate analysis of the uranium content of uranium-bearing ore samples. In a laboratory set up in his home in Belmont, MA, and with his wife as assistant, he quietly conducted the tests without benefit of guards and unknown to neighbors.

The Radioactivity Center was involved with fundamental nuclear physics as well as medical applications. Examples of the work that was done include studies on the properties of nuclei; the development of instrumentation and methods for measuring radionuclides; standardization of radionuclides (for determining the absolute amount); development of radiochemical methods for isolating radionuclides; and development of methods of calculating radiation dose.

Professor Evans was born on May 18, 1907, in University Place, NE. At the California Institute of Technology, he received the BS in physics in 1928, MS in 1929 and PhD in 1932. After two years as a National Research Council Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, he went to MIT, where he remained an active member of the faculty for 38 years, retiring in 1972. Following his retirement, he continued to visit MIT as a consultant and served as a special project associate at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

A former colleague, Dr. Constantine J. Maletskos of Gloucester, MA, described Professor Evans as "a world-class physicist with an... uncanny ability to see through a problem, to simplify it and get at the important roots, and to set up an appropriate model for a seemingly simple solution to a complex analysis. His famous admonition in one of his radon papers, 'A little contemplation saves a lot of calculation,' expresses it all."

Professor Evans also was regarded as a superb teacher, and many of the leading nuclear physicists today were among his 1,200 graduate students, 100 of whom completed their theses under his direction.

He wrote a practical manual on teaching, "You and Your Students," which proved so useful to professors that it has been translated into several languages. More than 100,000 copies have been distributed throughout the world.

In addition to his book, Professor Evans wrote more than 200 scientific papers and chapters in books. He served as editor, associate editor or member of the editorial board for a number of journals.

He served as a consultant or committee member for many hospitals, institutions, government agencies and scientific societies.

From 1946 to 1969 he was chairman of the National Research Council Subcommittee on Shipment of Radioactive Materials, which established regulations that have been internationally adopted.

Among his many honors, Professor Evans was the recipient of the Theobald Smith Medal and Award in the Medical Sciences from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Presidential Certificate of Merit, the Hull Award and Gold Medal from the American Medical Association, The Silvanus Thompson Medal from the British Institute of Radiology, the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Health Physics Society and the William D. Coolidge Award from the American Association of Physicists in Medicine.

He was a member of many societies and professional organizations, and served as president of of both the Radiation Research Society and the Health Physics Society. Among his memberships were the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Life Fellow), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Fellow), the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the American Nuclear Society, the American Roentgen Ray Society and the Royal Scientific and Literary Society of Sweden.

Survivors are his wife, Mary Margaret (Shanahan) of Paradise Valley, AZ, and three children from his first marriage, Richard O. Evans of West Palm Beach, FL, Ronald A. Evans of Tuscon, AZ and Mrs. Gene (Nadia) Hill of Corpus Christi, TX.

Topics: Obituaries

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