In Memoriam: Vilma Hunt, former HSPH scientist, radiation expert, feminist

January 22, 2013 — Vilma Hunt, a pioneering researcher who studied radioactivity in cigarette smoke and workplace environmental hazards for women, died on December 29, 2012. A former research associate and visiting scientist at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), Hunt was described in the January 3, 2012 Gloucester Times as one of Cape Ann’s “intellectual dynamos” and a “spitfire” who was a scientist, writer, feminist, professor, dentist, and activist.

A January 17, 2013 article in the Boston Globe recounted how Hunt, an Australian-born mother of four who was studying radioactive elements at HSPH in the mid-1960s, decided to test a colleague’s cigarette butts on a whim—and found polonium-210. Hunt and a colleague went on to discover that, over a lifetime, smokers are exposed to considerably more polonium-210 than nonsmokers. These findings helped establish the links between smoking and lung cancer.

Hunt went on to teach environmental health at the Yale School of Medicine and at Pennsylvania State University. From 1979 to 1981 she was an administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency dealing with the health effects of environmentally-contaminated sites such as the Love Canal toxic waste dump in New York and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, site of a nuclear accident. Hunt was also a founding member of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice. Her interest in women’s health and the workplace led her to write numerous articles and reports on the subject, including a 1979 book, Work and the Health of Women.

Joseph Brain, Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology at HSPH, was a graduate student at the School when Hunt was researching polonium-210 in cigarettes. He said Hunt was one of his earliest and most enduring mentors. “I always admired her fierce dedication to truth,” he said. “She was a superb scientist, but was also deeply interested in using science to make the world safer and more just and peaceful.”

He added that Hunt was also a role model for many women. “In the sixties, there often seemed to be only three options: being a mother, a nurse, or a teacher,” he said. “Vilma was an example of how women can do or be anything.”

–Karen Feldscher

Read the Gloucester Times obituary

Read the Boston Globe obituary