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December 10, 2015

Obituary: Niel Wald

Wald_NielRadiation researcher Niel Wald, professor emeritus in the Graduate School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, died Nov. 28, 2015, at the Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Squirrel Hill. He was 90.

Wald, of Highland Park, had been in declining health after a fall in May, but until recently had been active in the department, colleagues said.

Wald’s research focused on the health effects of radiation. His early work included the study of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as radiation exposure in nuclear industry workers. He jointly developed a classification scheme to aid clinicians in diagnosing and predicting severity of injury as a basis for triaging and treating individuals exposed to radiation.

He studied chronic radiation sickness in Soviet nuclear workers, published studies on the health of populations residing near the Chernobyl nuclear facility and advised Pennsylvania’s health department on monitoring after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

Department chair Bruce Pitt said of Wald: “He had an extraordinary career based on fundamental principles he helped to develop in radiobiology, radiation health and medicine.” He noted Wald’s ability to translate basic findings and laboratory work into broad human epidemiological studies.

“To have him in Pittsburgh was extraordinary,” Pitt said.

Colleague Bernard Goldstein remembered Wald as “a true scholar and a gentle soul.”

Goldstein said, “Niel’s work in Japan and at the Graduate School of Public Health made highly significant contributions to the modern understanding of radiation risk and of the treatment of radiation health effects. This was particularly evident after Chernobyl where Niel’s continued involvement led to additional insights into radiation effects and treatment.”

A native of New York City, Wald received his bachelor’s degree at Columbia College and his MD at the New York University College of Medicine.

He served in the U.S. Air Force as a flight surgeon and research radiobiologist, 1952-54, then spent three years in Japan as a senior hematologist and head of the radioisotope laboratory with the National Academy of Sciences Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission.

He returned to the U.S. to join the health physics division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, from which he was recruited to establish a radiation health program at Pitt.

Wald came to the University in 1958 as an associate research professor of radiation health, with a joint appointment as an assistant professor of medicine in the School of Medicine.

He was promoted to professor of radiation health in 1962.

Wald was named professor emeritus at his retirement in 2004.

He chaired the Department of Radiation Health 1969-76 and 1977-89, chaired the Department of Occupational Health 1975-76 and chaired the Department of Industrial Environmental Health Sciences 1976-77.

Wald also was director of the Radiation Health Division 1968-69, director of the cytogenetics laboratory of Children’s Hospital 1963-67 and director of the radiation medicine department at Presbyterian University Hospital.

Wald served as chair of the University’s radiation safety committee for 47 years, resigning in 2005.

He was the first physician to serve as president of the Health Physics Society (1973-74) and was active in many other professional organizations, including the Society of Nuclear Medicine and the Radiation Research Society. He was a diplomate of the National Board of Medical Examiners and a member of the governing council of the American Public Health Association.

Among numerous honors and awards, Wald received the Royal Society of Medicine of Great Britain visiting professorship of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in 1986; the U.S. Department of Energy health physics faculty research award (1992-95) and in 1998 received merit awards from the Pennsylvania Medical Society and the American Medical Association in recognition of 50 years of service to medicine.

Wald is survived by his wife, Lucienne; son David Wald; granddaughter Esther Wald; a sister, Judy Wald, and nieces and nephews. A second son, Phillip, died in 1986.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 8

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