In Memoriam: Patricia W. Durbin


by Ray Guilmette and Ken Raymond

Patricia Durbin died quietly at her home on 5 March 2009 at the age of 81. Born in Oakland, California, and a lifelong resident of the Bay area, Pat received her BS degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1948 and her PhD in the newly minted discipline of biophysics in 1953, also from Berkeley. During her early career, she was an important member of the research team of Dr. Joseph Hamilton working at the Crocker Laboratory, a predecessor of parts of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Taking advantage of the newly commissioned cyclotron, she studied the metabolic and biokinetic properties of a large number of radioelements as they were being created during those early days of discovery. At that time, Pat’s interests were in both the potential for medical use of radioisotopes and to obtain data that could be used to assess radiation levels for workers who might be exposed to these new radionuclides. About half of the elements of the periodic table were studied by the research team at Berkeley. In 1963, Pat transitioned to the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, where she worked as a staff senior scientist until her retirement in 1991, continuing postretirement research until the day of her death. She also made significant contributions to the study of new chelating agents for decorporating actinide radionuclides. Working with Dr. Kenneth Raymond at the University of California, Berkeley, they tested a large number of new chelating compounds for nearly 30 years and identified a number with high specificity and efficacy for removing actinides like plutonium from the body.

As significant as Pat’s experimental works have been, she is also recognized as a superb reviewer, organizer, analyzer, and synthesizer of large amounts of data, often from disparate sources. A search of the literature can find many of her key articles, such as “Metabolic Characteristics Within a Chemical Family,” “Plutonium in Man: A New Look at the Old Data,” “Metabolism and Biological Effects of the Transplutonium Elements,” “Actinides in Animals and Man,” and most recently “The Quest for Therapeutic Actinide Chelators,” which was the subject of the 31st Lauriston Taylor Lecture at the 2007 National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) annual meeting. All carry the imprimatur of Pat’s ability to craft cogent, generalized, and synthesized scientific principals out of mountains of experimental data.

During her career, Pat was often sought to participate on scientific committees and advisory panels, e.g., for the National Academy of Sciences, Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Research and Development Administration, Department of Energy, and NCRP. Her service to the NCRP was particularly exemplary. She served on the Council from 1975 to 1993, at which time she became an Honorary Member of Council. She served on Committee II on Internal Dose from 1956 to 1969 and was a member of Committee 30 on Physical and Biological Properties of Radionuclides from 1969 to 1976, Committee 34 on Maximum Permissible Concentration for Occupational and Non-Occupational Exposure, Committee 57 on Internal Dose, and Committee 57-17 on Development of a Biokinetic Model for Radionuclides in Wounds.

In 1984, Pat was honored with the Health Physics Society Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award, and she became a Fellow of the Society in 1985.

In addition to her passion for science, Pat loved classical music, liked to entertain, loved to travel to faraway places, and enjoyed her family. We will miss her scientific contributions, her ability to inspire others to excellence, her sparkling and sometimes acerbic wit, and her dedication to family, friends, and colleagues. It has been a unique opportunity to have worked with Pat.

She married James Heavey, who brought to the marriage four children from a previous marriage. She is survived by her sister, Nancy Page of Oakland; her daughter, Lenore Heavey, granddaughter, Clare Appleby, and Clare’s father, William Appleby; her stepchildren, Loanne Slapar, James Heavey, Kevin Heavey, and Kerry Sundberg; her half brothers, Pendleton Wallace, John Wallace, and James Wallace; and a number of nephews, nieces, and step grandchildren.