John Gofman

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John W. Gofman
John Gofman at his home in San Francisco in August 2005
Born September 21, 1918
Cleveland, Ohio
Died August 15, 2007 (aged 88)
San Francisco, California
Citizenship United States
Fields Biology, Chemistry, Physics
Alma mater Oberlin College (Bachelor's)
University of California at Berkeley (Ph.D)
University of California, San Francisco (M.D.)

John William Gofman (September 21, 1918 – August 15, 2007) was an American scientist and advocate. He was Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology at University of California at Berkeley. Some of his early work was on the Manhattan Project, and he shares patents on the fissionability of uranium-233 as well as on early processes for separating plutonium from fission products. Dr. Gofman later worked in medicine and led the team that discovered and characterized lipoproteins in the causation of heart disease. In 1963, he established the Biomedical Research Division for the Livermore National Laboratory, where he was on the cutting edge of research into the connection between chromosomal abnormalities and cancer.

Later in life, he took on a role as an advocate warning of dangers involved with nuclear power. From 1971 onward, he was the Chairman of the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility. He also described himself a libertarian and spoke at several events sponsored by the Students for a Libertarian Society in 1979 and 1980. He was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for his work on the effects of the Chernobyl disaster's low-level radiation exposure on the population.[1] John Gofman died of heart failure on August 15, 2007 in his home in San Francisco.

Early work[edit]

John Gofman was born in Cleveland, Ohio to Russian Jewish parents.[2] He graduated from Oberlin College with a bachelor's in 1939, and received a doctorate in nuclear and physical chemistry from Berkeley in 1943. In his work as a graduate student, he studied nuclear isotopes and helped to describe several discoveries, including protactinium-232, uranium-232, protactinium-233, and uranium-233. He also helped to work out the fissionability of uranium-233. He later became the group co-leader of the Plutonium Project, an offshoot of the Manhattan Project.[3]

Dr. Gofman earned his medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco, in 1946. After that, he and his collaborators investigated the body’s lipoproteins, which contain both proteins and fats, and their circulation within the bloodstream. The researchers described low-density and high-density lipoproteins and their roles in metabolic disorders and coronary disease. This work continued throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s.[3]

At Livermore[edit]

Dr. Gofman established the Biomedical Research Division for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1963. In 1964, he raised questions about a lack of data on low-level radiation and also proposed a wide-ranging study of exposure in medicine and the workplace at a symposium for nuclear scientists and engineers. This helped start a national inquiry into the safety of atomic power. With his colleague Dr. Arthur R. Tamplin, Dr. Gofman then looked at health studies of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as other epidemiological studies, and conducted research on radiation’s influences on human chromosomes. The two scientists suggested that federal safety guidelines for low-level exposures be reduced by 90 percent in 1969. The Atomic Energy Commission contested the findings, and "the furor made Dr. Gofman a reluctant figurehead of the anti-nuclear movement" according to The New York Times.[3] In 1970, he testified in favor of a bill to ban commercial nuclear reactors in New York City and told the City Council that a reactor in an urban environment would be "equal in the opposite direction to all the medical advances put together in the last 25 years."[3]

Opposition to nuclear power[edit]

Gofman retired as a teaching professor in 1973 and became a professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology.

Gofman testified on the behalf of Samuel Lovejoy at Lovejoy's 1974 trial. Lovejoy was charged with malicious destruction of property for toppling a weather tower in Montague, Massachusetts, owned by Northeast Utilities. Lovejoy's actions were an act of protest against a proposed nuclear power plant to be built on Montague Plains. Lovejoy was inspired by Gofman's book, Poisoned Power.

Gofman used his low-level radiation health model to predict 333 excess cancer or leukemia deaths from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident.[4] Studies of the health effects of the Three Mile Island accident have so far (by 2013) not observed any excess mortality. A retrospective study of Pennsylvania Cancer Registry found an increased incidence of thyroid cancer in counties south of TMI and in high-risk age groups.[5] The Talbott lab at the University of Pittsburgh reported finding only a few, small, mostly statistically non-significant, increased cancer risks within the TMI population. However, excess leukemia among males was observed.[6] The ongoing TMI epidemiological research has been accompanied by a discussion of epidemiological methodology, such as problems in dose and illness classifications.[7][8]

Three months after the Chernobyl disaster, Gofman predicted that Chernobyl would cause "475,000 fatal cancers plus about an equal number of additional non-fatal cases, occurring over time both inside and outside the ex-Soviet Union".[9] In contrast, even some 19 years later in September 2005, an official UN IAEA report claimed 4,000 deaths as the final estimated toll from Chernobyl.[10] In their 2006 book Alexey V. Yablokov and other Russian and East European researchers estimated that Chernobyl caused a million deaths through 2004, nearly 170,000 of them in North America. The book's English translation Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment was published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009. The book cites "5,000 mainly Slavic-language scientific papers the IAEA overlooked", notwithstanding the fact that 13 of the authors of the Chernobyl Forum were from Ukraine, Russia or Belarus. [11] [12] M. I. Balonov criticized the methodology of the book.[13] M. I. Balonov criticized the methodology of the book's estimation of Chernobyl's excess deaths and radiation-induced health effects and claimed the numbers were exaggerations which "could lead quite unnecessarily to a panic reaction".[14] Rosalie Bertell has asserted the above estimates of Gofman (1986) and Yablokov (2006) are too conservative.[10]

After a speech Gofman gave on nuclear waste at a national conference of activists in the summer of 1990, Charles Butler approached him for help. Butler was a retired physicist living in the Mojave Desert town of Needles, California, and was looking for help to stop the proposed low-level nuclear waste facility at Ward Valley, California. Gofman referred him to the Abalone Alliance Clearinghouse in San Francisco. With less than two weeks before the closure of the Environmental Impact Statement, the Alliance was able to mount a letter writing campaign that helped delay the EIS for an additional 90 days. This initial delay gave activists the time to form Don't Waste California and build a grassroots campaign that eventually stopped Ward Valley from opening.

Gofman also did work on the Diablo Canyon Power Plant.


Gofman promoted a linear no-threshold model for the dangers of radiation, suggesting that even small doses over time could prove harmful. His 1981 book Radiation and Human Health expounded on this and gave prediction tables for how much average life expectancy might be affected by radiation.



  • Gold-Headed Cane Award, University of California Medical School, 1946, presented to the graduating senior who most fully personifies the qualities of a "true physician."
  • Modern Medicine Award, 1954, for outstanding contributions to heart disease research.
  • The Lyman Duff Lectureship Award of the American Heart Association in 1965, for research in atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease; lecture published in 1966 as "Ischemic Heart Disease, Atherosclerosis, and Longevity," in Circulation 34: 679-697.
  • The Stouffer Prize (shared) 1972, for outstanding contributions to research in arterioslerosis.
  • American College of Cardiology, 1974; selection as one of twenty-five leading researchers in cardiology of the past quarter-century.
  • University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library, 1988; announcement of the "Gofman Papers" established in the History of Science and Technology Special Collection (October 1988, Bancroftiana, No. 97: 10-11).
  • Right livelihood Award, 1992
  • Honored Speaker for the Meeting of the Arteriosclerosis Section of the American Heart Association, 1993

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mission Statement of the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility
  2. ^ Sanders, Robert. "John Gofman, anti-nuclear activist & lipid researcher, has died". Berkeley. Retrieved 19 June 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d Obituary: John W. Gofman, 88, Scientist and Advocate for Nuclear Safety Dies New York Times, August 26, 2007.
  4. ^ Gofman John W., Tamplin, Arthur R. (December 1, 1979). Poisoned power: the case against nuclear power plants before and after Three Mile Island (updated edition of Poisoned Power (1971) ed.). Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press. p. xvii. Retrieved 1 October 2013. (In 1979 Foreword:) "...we arrive at 333 fatal cancers or leukemias." 
  5. ^ Levin RJ; De Simone NF; Slotkin JF; Henson BL. (August 2013). "Incidence of thyroid cancer surrounding Three Mile Island nuclear facility: the 30-year follow-up.". Laryngoscope. pp. 123(8):2064–71. PMID 23371046. 
  6. ^ Han YY; Youk AO; Sasser H; Talbott EO. (November 2011). "Cancer incidence among residents of the Three Mile Island accident area: 1982-1995". Environ Res. 111(8). pp. 1230–5. PMID 21855866. 
  7. ^ Wing S; Richardson D; Armstrong D; Crawford-Brown D (January 1997). "A reevaluation of cancer incidence near the Three Mile Island nuclear plant: the collision of evidence and assumptions". Environ Health Perspect. 105(1). pp. 52–7. PMID 9074881. 
  8. ^ Wing S; Richardson DB; Hoffmann W (April 2011). "Cancer risks near nuclear facilities: the importance of research design and explicit study hypotheses". Environ Health Perspect. 119(4). pp. 417–21. PMID 21147606. 
  9. ^ Gofman, John W. (1990). "Assessing Chernobyl's Cancer Consequences: Application of Four `Laws' of Radiation Carcinogenesis. Paper presented at the Symposium on Low-Level Radiation, National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, September 9, 1986. Reprinted as Chapter 37". In Egan O'Connor. Radiation-Induced Cancer from Low-Dose Exposure: An Independent Analysis. San Francisco: Committee for Nuclear Responsibility. Retrieved 2 October 2013. 
  10. ^ a b Bertell, Rosalie (Winter 2006). "Behind the Cover-Up: Assessing conservatively the full Chernobyl death toll". Pacific Ecologist. Retrieved 2 October 2013. Ref.2 
  11. ^
  12. ^ Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment"
  13. ^ Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment"
  14. ^ Balonov, M.I. (June 2012). "On protecting the inexperienced reader from Chernobyl myths". J Radiol Prot. 32(8). pp. 181–9. PMID 2022569279 

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