In Memoriam: George “Lew" Lewis Helgeson

1923-2010

by William C. Borden, CHP

George Lewis Helgeson, inventor of the first mobile whole-body radiation counter, died 31 March after suffering a stroke. He was 86.

Lew was a World War II veteran, having served as an x-ray technician in the U.S. Army. He obtained a chemical engineering degree from the University of Washington and went to work at Hanford in 1948. He moved to Pleasanton, California, in 1956 to work at General Electric’s Vallecitos Atomic Laboratory or “VAL" as it was known in those days—this after he thought that Hanford had produced more than enough plutonium and wanted to work on more peaceful uses of nuclear power. After eight years at VAL and two years with California Nuclear, he started his own company, Helgeson Nuclear Services, centered on providing whole-body counting services.

Lew was the embodiment of entrepreneurship. While working for California Nuclear, he constructed a “shadow shield" whole-body counter. He then put the counter on a truck and provided counting services to various facilities around the United States. While he thought that it was a raging success (he netted ~$50 in his first three months of operation), California Nuclear decided it wouldn’t be much of a money maker. Miffed, he quit and went into business for himself as Helgeson Nuclear Services. We all know the result.

I knew Lew as a dynamic man with an insatiable thirst for ways to develop and/or commercialize new technologies, which was augmented by his nearly eidetic memory. He also knew a good thing when he had it. His shadow shield whole-body counter was upgraded to a “bathtub" counter wherein the detector moved over the patient, rather than moving the patient under the detector. He stayed with this basic design for nearly three decades. The only refinement he made to this design was to add a dedicated computer, modem, and simplified instructions so that the client could “Do-It-Your-Self" (DIYS). The DIYS counter was then installed in the client’s facility. Spectra generated during the counts were transmitted via modem to the home office, where they were analyzed. This was well before the advent of the PC or the Internet. I remember helping to install his first DIYS counter in 1974 at a California reactor located a good ways out in the country. The first time the computer attempted to dial the home office, an operator came on line asking for the number, getting only a high-pitched whine in answer. Needless to say, Lew changed the software routines such that the home office computer would query the client’s DIYS counter computer, thereby leaving operators out of the circuit.

Lew is survived by his sons, Peter Helgeson of Pleasanton and Steve Helgeson of Eureka; daughter Julie of Soulsbyville; brother, John Helgeson of Ritzville, Washington; three grandchildren; and four great-grandsons. Helgeson’s wife of 63 years, Carolyn, died in 2009.

Lew was a religious and caring family man who will be greatly missed.