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, Medicine
Alma mater Oberlin College (Bachelor's)
University of California at Berkeley (Ph.D)
University of California, San Francisco (M.D.)
Thesis The discovery of Pa-232, U-232, Pa-233, and U-233. The slow and fast neutron fissionability of U-233.[1] (1943)
Doctoral advisor Glenn T. Seaborg
Notable awards Right Livelihood Award

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.

Gofman pioneered the field of clinical lipidology, and was honoured with the title of "Father of Clinical Lipidology" by the Journal of Clinical Lipidology in 2007.[2] With Frank T. Lindgren and other research associates, Gofman discovered and described three major classes of plasma lipoproteins, fat molecules that carry cholesterol in the blood. The team he led at the Donner Laboratory went on to demonstrate the role of lipoproteins in the causation of heart disease.

Gofman's earliest research was in nuclear physics and chemistry, in close connection to the Manhattan Project. He co-discovered several radioisotopes, notably uranium-233 and its fissionability ; he was the third person ever to work with plutonium, and, having devised an early process for separating plutonium from fission products at J. Robert Oppenheimer’s request,[3] he was the first chemist ever to try and isolate milligram quantities of plutonium.[4]

In 1963, Gofman 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, Gofman 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 was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for his work on the effects of the Chernobyl disaster's low-level radiation exposure on the population.[5]

Nuclear research[edit]

John Gofman graduated from Oberlin College with a bachelor's in chemistry in 1939, and received a doctorate in nuclear and physical chemistry from Berkeley in 1943, where he worked as a graduate student under Glenn T. Seaborg, the discoverer of plutonium and later a chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission. In his PhD dissertation, Gofman described the discovery of radioisotopes protactinium-232, uranium-232, protactinium-233, as well as uranium-233 and the characterization of its fissionability.[1] Seaborg had a very high opinion of Gofman : he called Gofman one of his "most brilliant students" when, in 1963, he appointed him to head the Biomedical Research Division at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory;[6] he wrote that his PhD dissertation was "very brilliant".[7]

Gofman shared three patents with collaborators on their discoveries :

  • n° 3,123,535 (Glenn T. Seaborg, John W. Gofman, Raymond W. Stoughton): The slow and fast neutron fissionability of uranium-233, with its application to production of nuclear power or nuclear weapons.
  • n° 2,671,251 (John W. Gofman, Robert E. Connick, Arthur C. Wahl): The sodium uranyl acetate process for the separation of plutonium in irradiated fuel from uranium and fission products.
  • n° 2,912,302 (Robert E. Connick, John W. Gofman, George C. Pimentel): The columbium oxide process for the separation of plutonium in irradiated fuel from uranium and fission products.[8]

Gofman later became the group co-leader of the Plutonium Project, an offshoot of the Manhattan Project.[9]

Medical research[edit]

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.[9]

At Livermore[edit]

At the request of Ernest Lawrence, Gofman established the Medical Department at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in early 1954 and acted as the Medical Director until 1957 roughly two days a week while teaching at Berkeley the rest of the time.[10]

At the request of the US Atomic Energy Commission and of LLNL's director John Foster, Gofman reluctantly accepted to establish the Biomedical Research Division for the LLNL in 1963 and became one of the nine associate directors of the LLNL. The US had resumed atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons at the Nevada test site in 1962 ; the State of Utah had an operating network to test milk for radioiodine, and the levels of radioactivity were found to be close to the limits prescribed by the Federal Radiation Council. The Commissioners of the AEC were "on the hot seat" and announced "a comprehensive, long-range program" to explore the effects of man-made radioactivity "upon plants, animals and human beings".[11]

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.[9] 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."[9]

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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] The ongoing TMI epidemiological research has been accompanied by a discussion of epidemiological methodology, such as problems in dose and illness classifications.[15][16]

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".[17] 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.[18] 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.[19][20] M. I. Balonov criticized the methodology of the book.[20] 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".[21] Rosalie Bertell has asserted the above estimates of Gofman (1986) and Yablokov (2006) are too conservative.[18]

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.

Support to nuclear deterrence[edit]

Gofman considered that "nuclear deterrence is important", for he did not believe that comprehensive test bans were enforceable ; thus he favored underground atomic bomb tests while acknowledging that "They are harmful, a little will leak out. A small number of people will get hurt." He claimed "I don't understand the disarmament movement".[10] More precisely, he was of the opinion that if the US were to disarm unilaterally, "the Soviet leaders may well try to make [the US] a slave state. […] There will surely never be a solution to human problems by any coercion or force. But there will also never be a solution through unarmed freedom as long as powerful bullies exist who will use force."[22]


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.

Birth and death[edit]

Gofman was born in Cleveland, Ohio to Jewish parents, David and Sarah Gofman, who immigrated to the USA from czarist Russia in about 1905.[23] His father had been "involved in some of the early revolutionary activities against the Czar." [24] Gofman died of heart failure at age 88 on August 15, 2007 in his home in San Francisco.



  • 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 arteriosclerosis.
  • 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. ^ a b John Gofman, PhD dissertation, The discovery of Pa-232, U-232, Pa-233, and U-233. The slow and fast neutron fissionability of U-233.
  2. ^ W Virgil Brown, From the Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Clinical Lipidology (2007) 1, p 97-99
  3. ^ Alexander V. Nichols, Robert M. Glaeser, Howard C. Mel, In Memoriam - John Gofman, University of California
  4. ^ Leslie J. Freeman, John W. Gofman - Medical Physicist, in Nuclear Witnesses - Insiders speak out, 1981, p 85
  5. ^ Mission Statement of the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility
  6. ^ J. Samuel Walker, Permissible Dose, p 38-39, 2000, University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-22328-4]]
  7. ^ Glenn Seaborg and Benjamin Loeb, The Atomic Energy Commission under Nixon: Adjusting to Troubled Times, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993, p.123, cited in : Ioanna Semendeferi, "Exploiting Uncertainty in Radiation Limits: Monticello Dissenters, Health Physicists, and the Civilian Nuclear-Power Debate", University of Minnesota, 2003, p.84.
  8. ^ Curriculum Vitae of Dr. John W. Gofman, in Preventing Breast Cancer: The Story of a Major, Proven, Preventable Cause of this Disease, 2nd edition, 1996, p 379-381
  9. ^ a b c d Obituary: John W. Gofman, 88, Scientist and Advocate for Nuclear Safety Dies New York Times, August 26, 2007.
  10. ^ a b US DOE Office of Human Radiation Experiments, Oral history of Dr. John W. Gofman
  11. ^ John Gofman and Arthur Tamplin, Population control through nuclear pollution, 1970, Nelson Hall co., p.54-56
  12. ^ 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." 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ 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. 
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ 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. 
  18. ^ a b Bertell, Rosalie (Winter 2006). "Behind the Cover-Up: Assessing conservatively the full Chernobyl death toll" (PDF). Pacific Ecologist. Retrieved 2 October 2013. Ref.2 
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment"
  21. ^ Balonov, M.I. (June 2012). "On protecting the inexperienced reader from Chernobyl myths". J Radiol Prot. 32(8): 181–9. doi:10.1088/0952-4746/32/2/181. PMID 22569279. 
  22. ^ Pat Stone, John Gofman: Nuclear and Anti-Nuclear Scientist, Mother Earth News, March–April 1981
  23. ^ John W. Gofman with Egan O'Connor, Radiation from Medical Procedures in the Pathogenesis of Cancer and Ischemic Heart Disease: Dose-Response Studies with Physicians per 100,000 Population, The Author's History , Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, 1999
  24. ^ Sally Smith Hughes, Medical research and radiation politics: oral history transcript - John Gofman, Bancroft Library, 1985

External links[edit]