In Memoriam: Ellen Hochheiser, CHP


by Ron Kathren, CHP and Dick Toohey, CHP, PhD

Ron Kathren:

On 20 December 2001, Dr. Ellen Hochheiser, CHP, died at the age of 43 following a brief illness. It was scarcely more than 25 years ago in the control room of the Reed Reactor that I first met Ellen—an impressively bold, decidedly brash, and unarguably brilliant (even by the rigorous Reed College standards) 18-year-old freshman with an extraordinary penchant for humor who had enrolled in the voluntary noncredit course that led to licensure as reactor operator. Upon learning that I taught the health physics portions of the course, she bombarded me with a slew of challenging questions about radiation safety that were more reminiscent of a doctoral oral exam rather than those of a freshman biology student. Our initial meeting was intense—and the start of a great personal and professional friendship that was extinguished with her untimely death. It also began for Ellen what was to be a lifelong and passionate commitment to the profession of health physics.

Ellen went on to earn a PhD from Rutgers and took a position as director of the radiological technologist training program at Salem Community College. She was demanding and firm yet also soft, caring, and considerate; indeed, she was like a mother hen to those tyro technologists, who followed her every move. And when in 1988 she invited me to present a seminar to her students, with the wry humor that was so characteristic of Ellen, she introduced me as their grandfather, noting that this must be the case since she had been my student during her undergraduate days.

Some years later, while working at Hanford, she applied for a position at the University of Arizona. Her application and recruitment by the university must rank as one of the most unusual ever. She and a very good friend of hers were finalists for the position, a selection rendered rather difficult by the fact that each had written a deservedly glowing letter of recommendation for the other! Her colleague must have been the better and more convincing letter writer, for Ellen was the successful candidate and the two remained fast friends and colleagues throughout the rest of her life.

In health physics matters, Ellen was outspoken and forthright, imbued with a high sense of duty and ethical responsibility. She did not suffer fools gladly and frequently concocted subtle ways to educate otherwise uneducable people. There was, for example, the time she inveigled me to teach a three-hour seminar on operational health physics as in-service training for Hanford health physicists. In addition to this primary reason, there was a secondary covert reason, namely to show an insufferable, know-it-all manager recently retired from the military that there was a lot about health physics that he did not know. Under the guise of setting an example for the troops, she cajoled him into taking the test at the end of the seminar, promising that all the test scores would be kept confidential so as not to embarrass any members of his staff. She, of course, designed the test to underscore his technological weaknesses, and the rather dismal score that he achieved proved to be a great awakening for him. For years afterward, Ellen and I would share a chuckle about how much more enjoyable life became for his health physics staff because of her subtle and wise little ploy.

Ellen was deeply dedicated to maintaining high standards for health physicists and perceived that continuing education was an important way to accomplish this goal. Thus she was the inspiration and driving force behind many PEP courses and summer schools, demanding and getting the best from the instructors. She recognized the importance of certification and was justifiably proud of being a certified health physicist (CHP). As chair of the American Board of Health Physics (ABHP) Part I Panel of Examiners, she devoted innumerable hours to ensuring the quality, relevance, fairness, and integrity of the examination process and pushed hard for a strong and strongly enforced Code of Professional Practice. She was a conscience of the profession with whom I was privileged to have over the years many private and often intense discussions about the profession of health physics and its future, punctuated frequently with good humor and leg pulling. Ellen, your many friends and colleagues within the profession will miss you, but we are richer by far for your influence, for enhancing our professional education opportunities, and by your exemplary ethics and professional standards. With your passing, one of the brighter lights in the firmament of our profession has been extinguished.

Dick Toohey:

The American Academy of Health Physics (AAHP) and the American Board of Health Physics (ABHP) lost a valued colleague with the untimely passing of Ellen Hochheiser on 21 December 2001. Ellen had just completed six years of service on the Part I Panel of Examiners, serving as chair in 2000, and had expressed her interest in being considered for appointment to the Board. She was also a member of the AAHP Professional Standards and Ethics Committee. Ellen was employed in the Radiation Safety Office at the University of Arizona and had previously worked for Fluor Daniel Hanford, administered the Nuclear Engineering Technology program at Salem Community College, and served as a visiting lecturer at Rutgers and as the radiation safety officer for Hereon, Inc.

Ellen received her BA from Reed College and her MS and PhD from Rutgers. She was certified in comprehensive practice by the ABHP in 1993 and recertified in 1997. As Part I Panel chair in 2000, Ellen took the lead in a significant revision of the Part I exam, implementing the Board's request to replace almost half the exam to ensure that no questions remained from the compromised 1989 exam.

Ellen brought her outstanding dedication to the profession and her commitment to improving the certification process to her service on the panel. She constantly drove the panel members to improve the exam and the question bank, eliminating outmoded, trivial, or incomprehensible questions. She also brought her unflagging sense of humor to the task. She was instrumental in beginning a new tradition for the panel, namely a Sunday-evening question-writing session facilitated by cigars and brandy; some really good questions have come from these sessions over the past few years, and the panel will continue them in her honor.

Fortunately, I was able to work closely with Ellen, succeeding her as panel chair, and I consider my association with her a mechiah (a great joy; Ellen was proud of her Jewish heritage). We had frequent discussions about who was more demanding: a Jewish mother or a German Catholic one! We compared notes about our experiences in health physics, and I was never able to top her stories about radioactive fruit flies, among other things. Born in Newark, Ellen was a lifelong Yankees fan, and the highlight of 2001 for her was attending two World Series games in Phoenix and rooting for her team.

The Board and the Academy express our deepest condolences to Ellen's family, friends, and colleagues. To say we will miss her is an understatement. We are saddened that we have been deprived of her talent and devotion to health physics, for I am sure that her greatest contributions to our profession still lay ahead. Above all, though, we are saddened to lose her friendship, compassion, and example. Rest easy, dear friend, for you have left your mark on us, and we and our profession are much the better for it.