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NCAR Mourns the Death of Ed Martell, Its Only Radiochemist

Ed Martell.

NCAR lost one of its most multidisciplinary scientists when Edward Martell died peacefully in his sleep early Wednesday morning, 12 July, in the library of his home where he had retired to read before going to bed.

Invited to Boulder by Walt Roberts in 1962, Ed had been a radiochemist at NCAR ever since. He was the epitome of a scientist who lives and breathes his field of study virtually every waking moment of his life. Ed also was a "lone ranger" of sorts for the theories that he believed in passionately. For instance, in recent years he had taken on the medical establishment and the National Institutes of Health for what he saw as insufficient funding for the study of radiation-induced lung cancer.

Ed was educated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and became part of the military establishment for the next 20 years. Immediately after graduating in 1942, he was commissioned as a young second lieutenant and served in the Okinawa campaign of World War II. He retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In 1950, Ed completed his Ph.D. in radiochemistry from the University of Chicago. For the next 12 years, he was involved in nuclear research as a group leader at the Fermi Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago and at the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory in Bedford, Massachusetts. Ed was in charge of radiation-effects projects in three series of nuclear weapons tests in Nevada and in the 1954 hydrogen bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, South Pacific.

Ed's joining what is now the Atmospheric Chemistry Division marked the turning point in his professional career. Having witnessed the devastating effects that nuclear bombs had on life in the South Pacific, Ed executed a 180-degree turn from his previous work and spent the last 33 years of his life and career researching those dangers and publishing his findings. While some wondered why his research was based at NCAR, there were always strong in-house supporters of his work in latter years, including John Firor, director of the Advanced Study Program, and Ralph Cicerone, former director of ACD.

"Ed was an excellent, original, and independent scientist," says Bernard Vonnegut, professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Albany. "He was invariably stimulating and a helpful friend."

Niels Schonbeck, professor of chemistry at Metropolitan State College of Denver, was a protegé of Ed's at NCAR in the early 1980s. "Ed was a highly creative and courageous scientist who loved every minute of his long life of productive work," says Niels. "His courage came in his decision to cross boundaries of disciplines into areas outside of his formal training. His rewards were his unique insights into the effects of radiation on biological systems. Some of his conclusions covering the origin of life, marine aerosols, cancer, and aging are today considered controversial. In my opinion, this is because he was ahead of his time."

While at NCAR, Ed served as president for four years of the International Commission on Atmospheric Chemistry and Radioactivity, one of the several commissions of the International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of numerous other scientific societies.

Ed served as an expert witness on radioactive fallout in hearings before the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. He was an active critic of soil contamination through plutonium radioactivity and was the first scientist to measure radioactivity in and near the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons manufacturing site. Ed also was a strong supporter of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents low-income blacks who were victims of government-sponsored radiation testing.

An avid researcher until his death, Ed published a paper in 1993 on the origins of life, theorizing that ionizing radiation in artesian groundwaters may have been the energy source that fueled evolution of DNA and the first living cells. Ed had exchanged ideas on his theories of which evolved first-RNA or DNA-with Tom Cech, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist at the University of Colorado. At the time of his death, Ed was working on a book for Yale University Press entitled Natural Radionuclides and Life. Survivors include Ed's wife of 52 years, Marian; a son, Robert, of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; a daughter; Maribeth; of Fairfield, Iowa; and one granddaughter, Lief. Two children, Margaret and Edward, Jr., preceded him in death. --Joan Vandiver Frisch, Media Relations

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Last revised: Wed Mar 29 17:28:10 MST 2000