In Memoriam: Herman Cember
by Wei-Hsung Wang, CHP, and Neil J. Zimmerman, CIH (with lesser contributions from Allen Brodsky, CHP, and Ron Kathren, CHP)
It is very difficult to write an obituary for Herman Cember, certainly among the best (if not the absolute best) known and beloved and esteemed personages in health physics. Herman was in the hearts and thoughts of many of us so much of the time—even when we were not using his textbook—that it is difficult to believe he is gone. Because his professional accomplishments have been published previously (Brodsky 1990; Brady 2005), this obituary will focus on the personal characteristics and recollections of this near legendary figure as seen largely through the eyes of a former graduate student and a beloved son-in-law, himself a respected professor in the related field of industrial hygiene, with minor contributions from two old friends and colleagues.
Professor Emeritus Herman Cember, 85, of Lafayette, Indiana, died Saturday, 7 March 2009, at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis from complications associated with mesothelioma. At the time of his death, Herman was still very active in his research and teaching career. His professional contributions to health physics began early in his career and included the important initial experimental research showing that lung cancer in animals can be produced with beta emitters, along with numerous other diverse research accomplishments and unending service to the professions of health physics and industrial hygiene.
Herman began the first graduate health physics program not supported by the federal government at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health in 1950, moving to the University of Cincinnati a decade later after receipt of a PhD in biophysics. After a stint with the International Labor Office in Geneva, he joined the faculty of Northwestern University, where he served for three decades before moving on to Purdue. He soon published his popular textbook, Introduction to Health Physics, the all-time best-selling book ever published by Pergamon Press, which he continued to update through the fourth edition, published with his former student Tom Johnson in 2008. His book has been used throughout the world and by almost every health physicist within the United States as a course text, for preparation for the CHP exams, or as a reference and resource.
He was honored with the highest award for scientific contributions, the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award of the Health Physics Society, and the William B. McAdams Award of the American Academy of Health Physics for his tireless contributions to the examination process, continuing education programs, and as president of the Academy (1999). Not only a world-renowned expert in health physics (you might say “he wrote the book"—which he did!), he had expertise in many related areas—industrial hygiene, air pollution, environmental science and engineering, and many aspects of public health. In addition, he was well versed in almost every area of medicine, science, and mathematics and equally well versed in virtually every other area of knowledge as well. He was a history buff, an opera buff, and indeed a true Renaissance man. He was blessed with an unbelievable memory, remembering the name of every teacher he ever had and even trivial facts about them, such as what type of perfume they wore. He knew every character in every opera, every Civil War general, and details of all the battles. He could discuss religion on a high intellectual plane with learned priests, rabbis, and imams and cite parts of the Bible on which the discussions centered. He was an accomplished linguist, learning the language of each of the several countries he visited so that he could speak to natives in their own tongues.
His extraordinary intellect notwithstanding, Herman was down to earth, warm, and friendly. He could talk to anyone about anything on any level; waiting in a line, any line—at the airport, the movie theater, the auto license bureau—he would strike up a conversation with his neighbor within seconds. His ability to get along with everyone and his interests and curiosity about everything lent themselves to one of his well-known quirks—being late to most appointments. In the days before all the current airport security, Herman and his family were known for arriving at the airport on the run, getting there just in time to board before the aircraft door was shut. Accompanying Herman and Sylvia to dinner after a meeting was an experience in delay. Walking through a lobby on the way to dinner, Herman would stop every few feet to talk with someone who wanted to greet him, and he would never be short with anyone. But once finally at the restaurant, Herman and Sylvia were the most engaging dinner companions, and Herman’s stories and anecdotes, which often revolved around Sylvia, commanded rapt attention, continuing long after dinner until the restaurant was ready to close.
His students seem to remember the stories he told in class better than the subject matter, but in reality, the stories somehow related to the subject matter, so they didn’t even realize they were learning as they were enjoying the class. Herman believed that by applying common things from everyday life—money, sex, or cars—as an analogy, even the most abstract concept could be simply conveyed and explained. His informal teaching style welcomed all kinds of questions, except for the one he did not like: “Will this be on the test?" He counseled students to do what they enjoy because they enjoy it, not for the money, since so much of a person’s lifetime will be spent at work.
Like many Americans, Herman came from humble beginnings. His father was a coal miner in Europe who emigrated to the United States to escape antisemitism, meeting his wife-to-be on the ship to America in 1922. As an infant Herman won a silver cup in the “Most Beautiful Baby" contest in his neighborhood of Brownsville (Brooklyn), and it is still proudly displayed on his mantel. As a high school student, when other kids would be reading comic books and pulp novels, Herman, in addition to reading those, was also picking up geometry, physics, and history books to read “just for the fun of it." He claimed that he read his school books on the first day of school as soon as he got them home.
Herman was very much the family man, as a loving and devoted husband for 65 years, a wonderful father to his children Michael and Marilyn, and the best possible grandfather to six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. As a strapping young man of 18, he spied his future wife Sylvia one day as she stopped into a local candy store to pick up her Sweet Sixteen birthday cake, and he asked a friend who she was, saying, “She’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen—I’m going to marry her." He ran into her again soon after on Coney Island with some friends and got one of his friends to introduce her—and the rest, as they say, is history.
His independent spirit is demonstrated by his love of bow ties. However unpopular these might be, anyone who recalls him surely will picture him wearing a bow tie. And he was a purist—he never wore one of those clip-on varieties and was one of the few remaining men who could adeptly tie a bow tie.
Herman was a most amazing, vital, and energetic individual, with a great sense of humor, and the anecdotes in which he is the central figure are legend. As a kid, his “gang" snuck into the New York World’s Fair when no one was looking and picked the locks of local warehouses—not to steal anything, but just “because they were there." He once let loose some crabs on a busy subway train just to see how people would react. Bored on another day, he climbed into the World War I airplane displayed proudly in the lobby of his high school. Making engine noises and pretending to be a flying ace, he grabbed the machine guns and pulled the trigger, intending to make machine gun noise, when to his—and everyone else’s—surprise, the live ammunition that was somehow left in the guns tore down half of the lobby’s wall. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Perhaps the ultimate Herman story is his interview with CBS for his first professional job after finishing his BS in electrical engineering. After an entire day of grueling interviews with many technical people at CBS, Herman was led into one last office to await a final meeting with a Dr. Goldmark. Having never experienced a professional interview, and with the interviews having gone exceedingly well, Herman logically assumed that this final meeting must be for a physical exam prior to his being offered the job. Since he was tired and eager to get home, he thought that he would expedite the procedure a bit by getting ready for the exam. So, imagine Dr. Goldmark’s (PhD and director of research) surprise as he entered his office and found a grinning Herman Cember extending his hand, in his socks and underwear! Did he get arrested for indecent exposure, or did he get the job? Of course, thanks to Herman’s charm and down-to-earth easy-going manner, he started at CBS the next week!
The world of health physics, and indeed the world itself, will be impoverished by his passing. But the legacy he leaves behind is truly enormous, and we are all far richer for it.
- Brodsky A. 1990 Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award presented to Herman Cember. Health Phys. 59(3):255-256; 1990.
- Brady L. Profiles in radiation protection: Herman Cember. RSO Magazine 10(1):9-12; 2005.