In Memoriam: Melvin W. Carter

1926-2007

by Bernd Kahn

Melvin W. Carter died on 15 August 2007 at the age of 80 in Atlanta, Georgia, his birthplace. He devoted his entire professional life to health physics, from the time that he joined the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) in 1951, and was one of the outstanding leaders of this discipline. He was an early member of the then newly created PHS Bureau of Radiological Health and was given a series of important assignments for managing its radiation-protection programs. The Bureau, given various names during subsequent years, ultimately was split between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where its successor agencies still function.

After graduation from high school during World War II, Mel served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1944 to 1945. He then attended the Georgia Institute of Technology and received a BS (in civil engineering) in 1949 and an MS (in public health engineering) in 1951.

He served in the PHS from that time onward, with assignments to Cincinnati, Ohio (twice); Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Gainesville, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada (twice); and Montgomery, Alabama. His initial assignments were to the Taft Sanitary Engineering Center, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Nevada nuclear test site. In 1958, the PHS assigned him to the University of Florida, where he obtained his PhD (in radiological and environmental engineering) in 1960. Subsequent major assignments by the PHS were as director of the Southeastern Radiological Health Laboratory (1960-1968) in Montgomery and director of the Southwestern Radiological Health Laboratory (1968-1972) in Las Vegas. His service period spanned the transfer in 1970 of responsibility for environmental control aspects from the PHS to the EPA. He retired from the PHS Commissioned Corps in 1972.

Mel then joined the faculty of the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he taught and administered research programs from 1972 until a second retirement in 1988. He formed the International Radiation Protection Consultant firm and actively pursued consulting until shortly before his death.

In Mel's first assignment to Las Vegas in the mid-50s, he was attached to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission group there as the PHS deputy officer in charge of off-site health physics monitoring around the Nevada nuclear test site. He also was off-site radiological safety officer for Pacific Proving Grounds nuclear tests in 1956 and 1958.

Returning with his PhD degree, he directed, in turn, the Montgomery and the Las Vegas laboratories. At the former, he began with a handful of professionals and technicians in a few wooden structures abandoned by a laboratory group that had been moved to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within eight years, he had developed a large and modern 100-person radiological laboratory. The laboratory set up and processed radionuclide monitors for media such as air, water, and milk as part of national radiological monitoring networks. He greatly expanded the activities of the Las Vegas laboratory from radiation-related programs such as radionuclide transport studies at the nuclear test site to a suite of environmental protection programs of which radiation was only one component.

At Georgia Tech, he occupied the Neely Professor chair and taught health physics courses in the School of Nuclear Engineering (later, the Nuclear Engineering and Health Physics Programs in the School of Mechanical Engineering). At the same time, he directed the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs, as well as one of its components, the Bioengineering Center. The former was responsible for encouraging cooperation in research by various disciplines, including an environmental radiation laboratory.

Although his primary responsibility in most positions was program management, an important aspect of Mel's career in radiation protection was active involvement in the research and monitoring that he planned and supervised. He is author or coauthor of about 100 publications and reports devoted to environmental radiation pathways and surveillance, notably in relation to nuclear testing and waste handling. He is the coeditor of the texts Tritium, Management of Low-level Radioactive Waste, and Radionuclides in the Food Chain.

Mel earned the highest professional recognition by his peers. He was elected president of the Health Physics Society (HPS) (1980) and president of the International Radiation Protection Association (1984-1988). He was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering (1999). He was elected to four terms as a member of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) (1971-1995) and thereafter as honorary member. He was inducted into the Georgia Tech Engineering Hall of Fame (1998). He was given the Commendation Medal of the U.S. Public Health Service (1969), the Distinguished Career Award of the EPA (1972), and the Founders Award of the HPS (1991).

Mel devoted much time and effort to the scientific and administrative activities of advisory panels, boards, and committees dedicated to developing and improving his chosen field. He was appointed to numerous national and international scientific committees and headed a number of them. Sponsors included the National Research Council, the NCRP, and the U.S. Department of Energy. He devoted much time and effort to participating in committees for the NCRP, the International Radiation Protection Association, Georgia Tech, and the HPS.

I knew Mel and worked with him for many years; we first met briefly at Oak Ridge in the early 50s and then worked together in the PHS and EPA. I later followed him to Georgia Tech. I was impressed by the universal respect he was accorded. He worked hard, was highly competent, and accepted responsibility, but was also a pleasure to work with. Personally, he was thoughtful, kind, and amusing. He loved his hobbies, notably fishing, playing poker, and—in recent years—relaxing at his lake home. His many friends, professional associates, acquaintances, and I will miss him dearly.

Mel's many responsibilities and various assignments did not subtract from his family-oriented life. His dear wife, Ann, passed away two years ago after 58 years of marriage. He is mourned by his five children—Dr. Brent Carter, Nancy Carter Dunn, Dr. Bruce Carter, Doug Carter, and Victoria Carter Smith—and their spouses and by his eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.