In Memoriam: Robert H. Wilson, CHP


by Ronald L. Kathren, CHP

The multitalented Robert Harold Wilson was born 15 January 1922 in Vancouver, Washington, and passed away of a heart attack on 27 September 2008 in the Tri-Cities. Bob grew up during the Great Depression, attending Vancouver High School, where despite his small stature he excelled at track and field, football, tennis, and boxing, as well as academically. In 1942 he interrupted his studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving with distinction as a fighter pilot in the European theater and later as a base commander in occupied Europe. After the war, he returned to Washington, completing his degree in chemistry and joining the staff of General Electric in 1947. Thus began a career at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation that spanned 40 years and led to many notable technical accomplishments, including the Bio Assay and Quick Sort systems. The Bio Assay system provided a means of evaluating the internal deposition in exposed individuals and required considerable refinement of the then limited human excretion data with respect to plutonium biokinetics. The Quick Sort procedure provided an effective means to simply and rapidly determine which individuals should be referred for medical observation following exposure from an accidental criticality and was incorporated into many emergency plans. It involved using a Geiger-Müller survey meter to evaluate the blood sodium activation and hence potential dose by the simple expedient of having an exposed or potentially exposed individual bend over the probe placed in the middle of the abdomen.

Bob was also involved in evaluating emissions of ruthenium and other particulate contamination from the REDOX plant stack emissions and iodine exposures from the now infamous Hanford Green Run in 1949. He was instrumental in developing and documenting detailed records of radiation exposure to early workers on the Hanford site, providing invaluable data for later radioepidemiologic studies.

He was a pleasant, even-tempered, and gentle man and an unassuming low-profile person who frequently pulled more than his share of the load but who never sought recognition for his many accomplishments and contributions to health physics and indeed eschewed the limelight. Team player that he was, he often chose instead to allow others to share in or even take credit for ideas and work that was really his. He served on a number of technical committees, was a primary contributor to the documented history of operational dosimetry at Hanford, and was a diplomate of the American Board of Health Physics and an emeritus member of the Academy. After his retirement from the Hanford site, Bob continued to consult and took special interest in assisting former Hanford workers with radiation exposure apply for benefits through the EEOICPA (Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act).

In addition to being a first-rate health physicist, Bob was an accomplished piano player and a talented photographer who traveled widely and presented occasional public slide shows of his travels. He was preceded in death by his wife Virginia in 2003 and is survived by 5 sons, 11 grandchildren, and 6 great-grandchildren. Those of us who had the pleasure of working with Bob will recall his agreeable demeanor and willingness to contribute his not inconsiderable technical expertise to the solution of the problem at hand.