In Memoriam: Robert C. Ricks


by R.E. Toohey, CHP, PhD (Portions appeared in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, 28 June 2017)

Robert C. ("Bob") Ricks, PhD, passed away on 22 June 2017 at the age of 76. Bob was born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, which no doubt accounted for his well-known predilection for capsaicin in all its forms. No one ever beat Bob in a spicy food-eating contest, be it Tex-Mex chili, vindaloo curry, or Szechuan stir-fry. He attended graduate school at Texas A&M University and received both a master's and a doctorate degree in radiobiology. In 1969, he moved to Oak Ridge and joined the Medical Sciences Division of Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU). In 1975, he participated in the establishment of the Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site (REAC/TS) under its first director, Clarence Lushbaugh, MD. Now under the direction of the National Nuclear Security Administration, REAC/TS was established by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to serve as a center of expertise in the medical management of radiation accidents and, more importantly, to share the knowledge gained from those incidents with medical providers worldwide. Bob was appointed director of REAC/TS in 1981 and served as director until his retirement in 2004.

Under Bob's leadership, REAC/TS conducted and published the proceedings of four international conferences (held in 1979, 1988, 1990, and 2001) on the medical management of radiation accidents. In 1985, he was appointed U.S. director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Radiation Emergency Medical Preparedness and Assistance. Bob was responsible for the development and coordination of numerous training courses on medical management of radiation accidents held around the world. His philosophy was basically "work hard, play hard!" Some of his more intense road-show periods included 1998 to 2001 under the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Domestic Preparedness Program, which provided courses to first responders and first receivers in the 120 largest cities in the United States on management of terrorist attacks using chemical, biological, or radiological agents. Prior to the opening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), REAC/TS staff provided training to the emergency departments of hospitals along the WIPP shipping routes from the various DOE sites to Carlsbad, New Mexico. He led the REAC/TS team on assistance missions to 46 different countries, and he also provided considerable assistance to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation in Vienna, Austria.

Bob was single-minded in his defense of REAC/TS' turf against all comers; occasionally he could rub people the wrong way, but even after a knock-down, drag-out verbal confrontation, he was always willing to go out for a beer after the dust settled. Bob kept his personal and professional lives fairly well separated, but I will never forget the moment at the wedding of his daughter, Janet, when the traditional dance of the bride with her father began as a very staid waltz, but quickly turned into a very well-choreographed and rehearsed dance routine that delighted all the attendees.

Steve Sugarman, CHP, Ron Goans, PhD, MD, and I are the only professional staff members who worked for Bob and are still active with REAC/TS. In Steve's words: "Bob played a major role in shaping how we respond to radiological incidents to this day. Nearly 20 years ago he gave the opportunity to become a member of the REAC/TS team to a young health physicist—and for that, I am eternally grateful." And from current REAC/TS Director Nick Daniak, MD, FACP: "Although I never met Bob, his influence on the development of REAC/TS remains palpable to this day. Everyone from the professional staff to the cleaning people remember him as a well-organized, hard-driving professional who put the needs of REAC/TS above all else. He will be missed by all." The Health Physics Society joins Bob's many coworkers, professional colleagues, and friends in expressing condolences to his family.