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Research pioneer touched lives, influenced the future of radiation science

 
E. John Ainsworth
E. John Ainsworth, PhD
1933–2009
Bethesda, Md., July 31, 2009—Scores of colleagues, friends, and coworkers celebrated the life of radiation biophysicist E. John Ainsworth, PhD, at the July 13 memorial service at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute where he was scientific director from 1989 to 1998. Ainsworth died on July 5 at the age of 76 at his home in Pleasanton, California, of esophageal cancer.

Born in 1933 in Indianapolis, Indiana, Ainsworth graduated from Brown University with a PhD in biology. His scientific research career spanned four decades and focused on the effects of radiation on humans and on prevention and treatment strategies. Remarks at the memorial service and comments communicated to AFRRI recalled his contributions to the scientific community, his dedication to the AFRRI mission, and his influence on fellow researchers. "Dr. Ainsworth’s stature in the scientific community and his leadership at AFRRI brought attention to the organization’s important work that continues today," said AFRRI Director COL Patricia K. Lillis-Hearne, MC, USA.

Ainsworth played a key role in preserving the institute when in the early 1990s Department of Defense budget cutters, focused on the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War, wanted to close the facility. Independent studies at the time consistently reported the institute’s scientific excellence, efficiency, and unique capabilities. According to Eric E. Kearsley, PhD, the AFRRI director during 1995 to 1997, "During this most difficult time, Dr. Ainsworth continued to inspire the staff to maintain the highest standards of scientific excellence and integrity. Without his leadership and tireless efforts, it is doubtful that AFRRI would have survived." By 1998 new nuclear threats were emerging in India, Pakistan, Iraq, and North Korea. Then the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, led to a renewed appreciation of nuclear/radiological threats and to a redefinition of the role of AFRRI in homeland security.

"Beginning in 2001," said Robert L. Bumgarner, MD, the AFRRI director during 1991 to 1995, "AFRRI led the way in responding to threats to the U.S. Postal Service mail." At the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, institute researchers confirmed the dose required to kill dry, free-flowing spores of Bacillus anthracis Ames by coordinating a collaborative study with the Life Sciences Division of the West Desert Test Center, U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, and the Ionizing Radiation Division, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Gaithersburg, Maryland. Institute scientists and engineers collaborated with NIST scientists to establish protocols delivered to the U.S. Postal Service in April 2002. "It was Dr. Ainsworth who understood the science that made that possible," said Bumgarner.

Ainsworth inspired and guided the careers of many of those who worked with him. Pataje G.S. Prasanna, PhD, a molecular radiobiologist, recalled, "He helped me immigrate to the United States, get established at AFRRI, and shape my career. I was able to thank Dr. Ainsworth, when seeing him recently at the Joint Commission on Radiation Research in San Francisco, for the positive influence he has had on my life. Many people would agree that he was a key person responsible for AFRRI’s survival, without which many accomplishments in decades to come would not be possible."

Responding to the news of the death of the former scientific director, William F. Blakely, PhD, an AFRRI senior scientist, wrote, "Dr. Ainsworth was an excellent mentor who provided guidance and opportunities for AFRRI scientists to not only contribute to the AFRRI research mission but also advance their scientific careers. This was done during a challenging period in AFRRI’s history but established the foundation for the institute’s current collective successful research program in defense against radiological threats."

During the 1990s, Ainsworth and Glen I. Reeves, MD, then an Air Force colonel, initiated an effort to facilitate the critical review and analysis of information developed by scientific and medical professionals in states of the former Soviet Union. The project employed scientists who might otherwise have sought work in countries not aligned with the United States. "John's leadership, professional guidance, and political acumen for foreign and domestic governmental workings made this program happen," wrote Reeves. "My AFRRI assignment was the high point of my Air Force career, thanks to him." After Reeves’ further collaboration with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, that information is now made available via the AFRRI Web site.

Just when AFRRI was being formed, during the Cold War era of the early 1960s, to address the need for research into the biologic effects of radiation, Ainsworth was at the former U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory in California where he conducted interspecies comparisons of radiation injury and recovery. From there, he went to Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois in 1969. "He was looked upon as the leader in postirradiation life-span studies," said G. David Ledney, PhD, an AFRRI biologist, recalling his time at the Laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow. Ainsworth managed, among other things, the JANUS program, which focused on late effects of neutron and gamma radiation in terms of disease and life-shortening.

Just prior to his position at AFRRI, Ainsworth directed programs at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. There his research included studies of the carcinogenic and life-span effects of cosmic radiation’s energetic heavy nuclei (HZE particles) on astronauts during interplanetary travel. "Damage from heavy radioactive metal particles emanating from space environments were of significant interest to John," said Ledney. "He maintained a strong working relationship with NASA and received funds to support research to protect astronauts against likely damage to the lens of the eye from radioactive iron particles."

Ainsworth is survived by his wife Carolyn; daughters Sue Ellen and Lee Ann; son Brent; sons-in-law James Calcagno and William Caldwell; daughter-in-law Edie Ainsworth; granddaughters Kyla Ainsworth, Shannon Ainsworth, Melanie Caldwell, Lauren Caldwell and Serena Calcagno; and grandsons J. Dante Calcagno and Jared Caldwell.

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