In Memoriam: John Seth Laughlin


by Jean St. Germain, CHP

John Seth Laughlin, PhD, past president of the Health Physics Society (HPS) from 1960 to 1961 and world-renowned medical physicist, passed away on 11 December 2004 at the age of 86. Laughlin was born in Canton, Missouri. He received an AB from Willamette University, an MS from Haverford College, and his PhD from the University of Illinois. While at the University of Illinois, he studied with Dr. Donald Kerst, inventor of the betatron. Working with scientists in Kerst's laboratory, he developed the first medical applications of the betatron to the treatment of cancer. He was recruited from the faculty of the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois to serve as chairman of the Department of Medical Physics at Memorial Hospital in 1952, a position he held until 1989. He conducted seminal work on the use of radiation for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. He also led original research in calorimetry, radiation dosimetry, and radiation protection and published over 200 papers in the fields of biophysics and medical physics. He was one of the first investigators to install a cyclotron within a medical research center for the production of short-lived radionuclides, the predecessor of positron emission tomography scanning as used in nuclear medicine today. The original betatron from Memorial Sloan-Kettering was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, in 1977.

Laughlin was a professor of radiology at the Cornell University Medical College from 1980 until his retirement, member emeritus of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, vice president of Sloan-Kettering Institute, and chief of the division of biophysics of Sloan-Kettering Institute.

He was a charter member and served as president of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, president of the Radiation Research Society, president of the International Organization of Medical Physics, and vice president of the Radiological Society of North America. He was a Fellow of many organizations, including the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, the American Physical Society, the American College of Radiology, the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, the HPS, Sigma Xi, and the New York Academy of Sciences.

Laughlin served as consultant to the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission and was a member of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Damon Runyon Fund, and a consultant to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He served as editor in chief of Medical Physics. Among his many honors were an honorary doctor of science degree from Willamette University, the William D. Coolidge Award of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine in 1974, the gold medal of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology, the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award of the HPS, the Aebersold Award of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, the gold medal of the American College of Radiology, and the Marvin MD Williams Award of the American College of Medical Physics.

He is predeceased by his wife, Barbara Jean Kester, and is survived by three daughters, Dr. Catherine Laughlin of Rockville, Maryland, Frances Tucker of Portland, Oregon, and Janet Laughlin of Dallas, Texas. He has five grandchildren. He married Eunice Chapin Smith in 1979 and has stepchildren Paul Beyersdorf of New York and Susan Maes of Brielle, New Jersey. He has three stepgrandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the American Friends Service Committee, 1501 Cherry St., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19102-1479 or to the Education Fund, American Association of Physicists in Medicine, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, Maryland 20740.