In Memoriam: Harvey Earl Palmer


by Darrell R. Fisher and Ronald L. Kathren

Photo courtesy of Darrell Fisher

"Here and there, and now and then,

God makes a giant among men"

                           – Thomas S. Monson

We report with sadness the passing of our colleague and friend Harvey Earl Palmer at the age of 94 after a brief illness. Earl, as he was known to all, was an imposing figure standing 201 cm tall, a gentle and thoughtful giant among his many friends and peers. Earl willingly responded to questions and requests for help with exceptional kindness, patience, and love. His personality complemented his deep appreciation for learning, science, and service to family and community.

Earl was internationally recognized as a pioneering scientist and authority in whole-body radiation detection and measurements.

He was born 9 October 1929 and raised in Inkom, Idaho, at the start of the Great Depression. He earned a BS in chemistry from Idaho State University, Pocatello (1955) and an MS in chemistry from the University of Idaho, Moscow (1961). In 1955, he joined the General Electric Company, contractor for the Atomic Energy Commission's Hanford Site in Richland, Washington. He remained in Richland for the rest of his career, ultimately retiring as a senior scientist from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Earl's major scientific interest was developing and testing electronics, detectors, shielding, and analytical methods for measuring and studying human radionuclide metabolism and terrestrial and marine radioecology. In addition to overseeing routine in vivo counting for the Hanford site, he carried out numerous special projects, including design and development of shadow-shield whole-body counters. Most of his career at the laboratory focused on developing and strengthening the technical capabilities of the Hanford whole-body counter facility in downtown Richland. Earl supervised the final construction of the Hanford heavy-iron shielded room and whole-body counter electronics. He calibrated the counter for several important radioisotopes and directed operations of the counting facility for many years.

In collaboration with colleague William Roesch, Earl designed the first shadow-shield whole-body counter, and later adapted it for off-site radiation measurements. The shadow-shield counter was employed for studies on Alaskan Eskimos for evaluating intakes of cesium-137 (from consuming caribou meat) and iron-55 (from salmon). A simplified whole-body counter (the Palmer Counter) has been widely used in Scandinavia and other lands for detecting and quantifying human intakes of cesium-137 from nuclear weapons testing fallout and releases from nuclear reactor accidents.

He pursued innovative methods for detecting and quantifying very small quantities of radioactive materials in workers and members of the public. He was closely involved in mapping external and internal depositions of americium-241 after an americium nitrate explosion that seriously contaminated a Hanford nuclear process operator. He also studied the efficacy of radionuclide decorporation with chelating agents.

In collaboration with the University of Washington (Seattle), Earl conducted in vivo neutron activation studies on human bone disease and calcium and iron metabolism. He also developed unique detection systems for the university's Hematology Department supporting iron-55 and iron-59 metabolism studies, and he consulted for the Division of Nuclear Medicine.

Of particular interest to Earl at Battelle-Northwest was design and testing of highly sensitive radiation detection systems for measuring low-energy gamma and x-ray emitters in the body, such as those associated occupational intakes of uranium, plutonium, neptunium, and other transuranic radionuclides. He also demonstrated that short-lived radon and daughter products (bisumuth-214 and lead-214) could be measured in the lungs of people living in homes with high radon levels.

Earl married Myrna Potter in 1954; she was at that time a mobile x-ray technologist. She passed away in 2022 after 68 years of marriage. They are survived by adult children Dirk, David, Cindy, Linda, and Nancy; their spouses; 24 grandchildren; and 45 great-grandchildren.

Earl was a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving as bishop of his local congregation for 20 years and later as patriarch. He and his wife also served a mission in Romania (1994–1996).

Earl was a longtime member and Fellow of the Health Physics Society and local Columbia Chapter. He received the chapter's Herbert M. Parker Award in 2011. He was honored with appointment as affiliate assistant professor of radiology at the University of Washington and with a biographical citation in American Men and Women of Science. We will miss him!