John Gofman in 1979. Photo: Egan O’Connor
John Gofman in 1979. Photo: Egan O’Connor

In mid-August, John Gofman died at the age of 88. He was widely known in a variety of roles: physician, cardiac researcher, radiation scientist, and nuclear safety advocate. While working for his Ph.D. here in the 1940s under Glenn T. Seaborg he co-discovered isotopes of protactinium, uranium-232, and uranium-233, and soon found himself working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico.  Finishing his medical degree at UCSF at the end of World War II, he joined the physics faculty at Berkeley.

Using the then new-fangled ultracentrifuge (and against expectations), Gofman and two colleagues (both formerly his Ph.D. students) spun out a number of lipoproteins, among them LDL and HDL, known today as the “bad” and “good” cholesterols. Armed with this, they did dietary studies that in essence charted the field of lipids and heart disease decades in advance. Moving into research on the biological effects of radiation, Gofman and a colleague showed in 1969 that federal safety guidelines for low-level exposure were too high — and suggested lowering them by 90 percent.  He also pushed doctors to use lower doses of X-rays. Both gradually came about to an extent, but resistance in the meantime had taken its toll on Gofman’s career. He continued to research radiation and health, and to advocate for safety, in his last decades.

(Originally published in eGrad, November 2007)


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