In Memoriam: Evelyn Egner Watson


by Jayme Evelyn Watson, Granddaughter

Evelyn Egner Watson's life began as many typically do, but God's plan for hers was anything but conventional. A proud but modest woman, she herself would have to admit as much, if with a small smile, a chuckle, and a witty comment about hard work and dedication. It is impossible to fully capture her illustrious career and present it in a manner that would do it proper justice, much less to embody who she was as an individual of great faith, brilliance, and kindness—a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and friend to people who were lucky enough to find a role in the incredible narrative of her life. This is a humble attempt.

On 15 December 1928, Virginia Evelyn Egner was born in Corbin, Kentucky, to Edgar Mattison Egner and Bertha Mayfield Egner. One of three children, she grew up in Kentucky and eventually attended Cumberland College, where she received her AA in English and chemistry in 1946. She continued her education at Lincoln Memorial University and then at the University of Kentucky at Lexington, receiving a BA in English in 1949. After graduation, she worked four years for the Kentucky public school system, first as a teacher of math and science at Lynch High School, then as an office manager for Whitley County schools. She married Earl Greene Watson on 10 November 1953, and the couple then moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee—which would become her beloved hometown. Her daughter, Nancy Eileen Watson, was born on 12 January 1955, and her son, Philip Allen Watson, would follow on 4 August of the next year.

It was in 1959 that Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) hired Evelyn as a record clerk in purchasing, and this position, radically unlike the authoritative positions she would later hold at ORAU, began the 35-year career that would become her professional legacy as a nuclear scientist. After all, her career in purchasing was short-lived. Under the mentorship of Roger Cloutier, who saw great potential in her intellect and abilities, she taught herself radiation biology, studying every book Cloutier piled onto her desk, stubbornly immersing herself in the material. Through her self-education at the Radiation Safety Office, she became a research associate and laboratory technician. In 1968 she would even do postgraduate work at the University of Tennessee in the field of radiation dose assessment. The English major from Kentucky and mother of two had become a proper scientist.

In 1974 Evelyn succeeded her mentor Cloutier and became the program manager of the Radiation Internal Dose Information Center (RIDIC). Her work for the next 20 years would revolve around nuclear medicine, namely radiation dosimetry, and she would focus particularly on fetal dosimetry for pregnant women. She became the program director for RIDIC in 1988, the same year she coauthored the MIRD Primer for Absorbed Dose Calculations. She retired from ORAU in 1994, but as a dedicated member of the Society of Nuclear Medicine (SNM) and as chair of the nationally recognized MIRD Committee, she would travel the world and attend conferences on radiation dosimetry for the next 10 years—often, and kindly, with her children and grandchildren as her gratefully appointed traveling companions.

During her 35-year career at ORAU, Evelyn earned numerous awards for her efforts, and she also held several leadership positions outside of RIDIC, heading subcommittees and editing several newsletters and journals devoted to the dissemination of radiation research. In 1981 she received the Distinguished Service Award from the East Tennessee Chapter of the Health Physics Society, and in this same year, she became the associate editor of The Journal of Nuclear Medicine; she would hold this position for five more years. During this time, she also consulted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Radiopharmaceutical Advisory Committee and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on a regular basis. She received the Special Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer from the Federal Laboratory Commission in 1985, and two years later in 1986, she joined a subcommittee of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. Her service to this subcommittee would not end until 1998. Similarly in 1988, she took on the editing duties for the Society of Nuclear Medicine Southeastern Chapter newsletter. Evelyn served as the newsletter's editor for 11 more years, during which time she was also an active member of the Oak Ridge Chapter of the Scientific Research Society, the Health Physics Society, and the Association for Women in Science.

At the end of her career, in 1993, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the East Tennessee Chapter of the Health Physics Society, and when she retired as the program director of RIDIC in 1994, she was honored with the Lifetime Scientific Achievement Award from the East Tennessee Chapter of the Association for Women in Science. Evelyn was the first-ever recipient of this award.

In her postretirement years, Evelyn's awards and honors only continued to mount. In 2000 she was honored with the Marshall Brucer Award for Distinguished Service to the Nuclear Medicine Community, the highest award given by SNM's Southeastern Chapter, and the very next year, she was featured in Who's Who in America 2001—The Chronicle of Human Achievement. In honor of her exemplary leadership of RIDIC and the contributions she personally made in her field, Evelyn notably received the Loevinger-Berman Award for Excellence in Medical Internal Radiation Dosimetry in 2007, an annual honor awarded by SNM and the only one that recognizes excellence in nuclear medicine. For the first time since its inception in 1999, the Loevinger-Bennan Award was awarded to a woman.

All the while and between every committee she headed, research project she directed, or illustrious award she received, Evelyn was a doting wife, mother, and grandmother. To her grandchildren— Joshua Dexter Watson, Jayme Evelyn Watson, Jenna Eileen Watson, Christopher D. Donsbach, and David M. Donsbach—she was the best baker of bread, willing and able to knit or crochet literally anything they ever wanted, and impossible to beat at cards. She became a great-grandmother for the first time in 2013—on the day before her 85th birthday—to the beautifully named Evelyn Elizabeth Donsbach. Little brother Maximilian Christopher (Evelyn's first great-grandson) came on 22 April of this year. Evelyn was also a beloved member of Highland View Church of Christ, and she devoted her life and efforts to her church community, to the Women's Ministry, and—of course—to Him.

"I found Evelyn a most remarkable person—kind, capable, unpretentious, principled, intelligent, gentle. There are just not enough positive adjectives in the English language to describe her. I had known her for 51 years and never heard anyone say a negative word about Evelyn! How many people do you know that you can say that about?"

–Jack Beck, CHP, longtime colleague