In Memoriam: Bela Kovach

1930–2008

by Dennis Clum, CHP
Past President, HPS Buckeye Chapter

Bela Kovach, Health Physics Society (HPS) emeritus member and Buckeye HPS Chapter charter member and past president, passed away on 19 March 2008 in the central Ohio area at the age of 78. He was a gregarious, kindhearted, inquisitive, and ingenuous inventor and engineer (nuclear and electrical), as well as an artist who particularly enjoyed sharing and conversing with young people, especially students who shared similar interests.

He was known to most of us in health physics for his caricatures published in "As Seen by Bela Kovach" in Health Physics News. Bela had been drawing since his childhood years in Slovenia. He started sketching caricatures as a teenager while waiting in ration lines during World War II. His high school teacher and fellow local artists expected him to pursue an artistic career. Bela, believing he could not earn a living as an artist, instead earned a BS degree in electrical engineering and a postgraduate degree in isotope handling. In a 1993 article published in Health Physics News, he was quoted as stating: "I chose electrical engineering; however, the artist never perished in me. Yearly, about 1,000 sketches keep me in shape and allow me to double the joy of life in any moment." Later, Bela implied that sketching was his first love and that radiation safety his hobby: in a 2002 Health Physics News article, Bela was quoted as saying, "I never stopped sketching people; however, my real hobby was to improve the instrumentation to achieve ALARA."

He started his career during 1949 as a part-time uranium prospector while a senior in high school. There was very limited information available about Geiger counters at the time. Transistors were yet to be invented, and to maintain a reliable Geiger counter required a lot of ingenuity and luck. Then, very few mineralogists were knowledgeable about uranium-bearing minerals and prospecting was a learning experience in the fast lane, as described during his November 2005 talk at the Buckeye HPS Chapter meeting. One of Bela's most endearing moments of his HPS involvement might have been that 2005 talk, presented jointly with his grandson, Sebastian Kovach, and titled "Uranium Prospecting, Past and Present."

Bela had over 50 years of experience in radiological/nuclear engineering. During the early years of his career, he was involved with many radiation-detection inventions and redesigns. He worked on the redesign of an early portable G-M counter. He designed the first 50-channel analyzer and designed the fallout measurement detectors used after the first Chinese nuclear explosion and Soviet H-bomb fallouts. He designed the first patented anticoincidence system, using G-M counters as switching elements (with an impressive detection sensitivity of 10-12 used for fallout measurement). This system was used to detect radioactive aerosols and contamination in the food supply in several European countries as well as in Mexico. For this he was granted the silver award at the 1964 Brussels International Inventors Exhibition. He later was awarded the golden award for the invention of the AC/DC power transformation that was later used in portable instrumentation such as cell phones. He had several patents and published numerous papers in varied European and U.S. journals such as Health Physics, Radiation Protection Management, Nuclear Instruments and Methods, etc. He was the recipient of many awards, including the 1968 B. Kidric Award and the 1969 Inventors Council M. Pupin Award in Yugoslavia (Health Physics News April 1993 and September 2002).

After working at the Institute of Nuclear Science in Vinca, Yugoslavia, from 1951 to 1975, he emigrated to the United States to serve as a manager and radiation safety officer at Nuclear Consulting Services (later renamed NUCON) in Columbus, Ohio, where his work involved nuclear radiation detection, isotope identification, nuclear air-cleaning systems for power reactors, and environmental engineering. While with NUCON, he designed the instrumentation used for testing air-filtration systems that later became the standard instrumentation used at nuclear power plants (Health Physics News September 2002). He later became a U.S. citizen with a supporting letter of recommendation from then-Senator John Glenn.

A still-relevant 2002 Health Physics News article quoted Bela's personal experience with the rules of the game changing many times during his life and his subsequent advice to young professionals: "Remember that the rules will change during your lifetime. If you are not sure how the rules apply, do not take shortcuts! Make up your mind and use your best judgment; you will have to live with your conscience the rest of your life."

Besides inspiring young health physics/nuclear engineering students and interacting with his friends at HPS meetings, Bela enjoyed scuba diving, skiing, boating, and storytelling. In addition to his HPS membership, he belonged to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Buckeye Divers. He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Almast Bedrosian; children Ildi and Aram; daughter-in-law, Branka; grandchildren, Sebastian and Andrea; brother, Jozsef; extended family; and many friends.