In Memoriam: Donald Edmonds Herbert, Jr.


by Allen Brodsky, CHP, PhD

Donald Edmonds Herbert, Jr., was born on 11 December 1928 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and died on 4 March 2016 in Mobile, Alabama, after a long illness. A member of the Health Physics Society from 1972 to 1995, Don made fundamental contributions to the sciences that buttress health physics practice.

Don graduated from high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1946 and received a BS in physics from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 1950. Following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served during the Korean War as a gunnery officer on a heavy cruiser and later as a staff officer in the War Plans Division of a joint U.S.-NATO command. After an honorable discharge in 1954, he entered the graduate school of the University of Oklahoma, Norman, where he was awarded an MS in physics in 1956. He then entered the PhD physics program on a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1961, a few weeks after his first daughter Hillary's first birthday, tragedy struck when Don's wife and father both died, and he interrupted his studies at JHU. From 1961 to 1964, he served as assistant professor of physics at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There he developed an interest in biophysics and then medical physics.

When his daughter Hillary was four years old, Don resumed his postgraduate training at the University of London as a U.S. National Cancer Institute special research fellow in medical physics. Upon receiving his PhD from the University of London in 1967 (with a dissertation addressing aspects of chemical radiation sensitization/protection phenomena), Don joined the Penrose Cancer Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he worked as a physicist and statistician from 1967 to 1975.

In 1975 Don was invited to join the Department of Radiology of the College of Medicine of the University of South Alabama (USA) in Mobile, Alabama, as part of its new program to upgrade the radiation oncology services available to cancer patients in (at that time) underserved regions of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. He provided physics and statistics support to the radiation oncology programs at several area hospitals, served as the first director of the USA College of Medicine Bio-Statistics and Epidemiology Core Unit, and taught courses in physics and statistics to radiology residents and medical students.

In addition to his responsibilities at USA, Don served for several years as an expert consultant in statistics under contract to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, DC, to evaluate the 1980 report on biological effects of ionizing radiation (BEIR III). He subsequently served as a member of the BEIR V Committee.

In 1984 Don cofounded with two other physicists an ongoing series of international conferences on radiation oncology that continues to meet every four years at the University of Wisconsin in Madison under the aegis of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) and the University of Wisconsin. Don served as chair of several AAPM standing committees, including the Biological Effects Committee. Of particular note, he was chairman of the task group and the principal author of AAPM Report 43, "Quality Assessment and Improvement of Dose Response Models: Some Effects of Study Weaknesses on Study Findings," published in 1993. The eminent American radiation oncologist Lionel Cohen, MD, PhD, who reviewed AAPM Report 43, asserted that "the value of this [Report 43] to the clinical radiation oncologist is incalculable."

For his work in medical physics, Don was elected a fellow of the AAPM in 1995. He was subsequently named an AAPM-sponsored visiting professor in England and Scotland during the spring semester of 1998, where he gave a series of invited lectures.

Don also contributed to many other meetings and publications of the AAPM, the American Society of Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology, and the Radiological Society of North America. In 2004 Don received the AAPM Award for Achievement in Medical Physics (now called the Edith H. Quimby Lifetime Achievement Award) "for his outstanding career achievements in medical physics and his contributions to the profession." He retired from the USA College of Medicine in 2009 after 34 years of service and was appointed an emeritus professor in the Department of Radiology.

For several years after his retirement, Don maintained an office at the College of Medicine, where he continued to provide statistical support to colleagues as requested and, time permitting, continued to work on papers and books. He published his last scientific paper in 2012 at age 84 and had completed several hundred pages of a monograph on the applications of complex systems theory in biology and medicine at the time of his death.

In 2015, shortly before the death of his beloved wife Anne, he and his son John established and funded "The Anne and Donald Herbert Distinguished Lectureship in Modern Statistical Modeling" as a lasting memorial to her. The lectureship will make a significant contribution to the annual meetings of AAPM for many years to come.