A Montana scientist who was labeled as unpatriotic for his warnings of the dangers of fallout from Nevada atomic tests has died at age 88.
Bert Pfeiffer, a biologist and a zoology professor at the University of Montana, also played a role in warning of the dangers to soldiers of Agent Orange and argued that the Vietnam War was an environmental-degradation issue.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Pfeiffer and other scientists produced research questioning the contention of federally paid scientists that atomic fallout was not a public health threat. For their trouble, the research was ignored, and journalists not only did not cover it on its merits but also raised questions about the authors’ patriotism. The Los Angeles Examiner once ran a headline labeling those who questioned the safety of the tests as “Reds.” Pfeiffer’s mail was opened by federal agents (years later he received $1,000 compenation for the violation.)
“People didn’t want to believe the danger … but we knew,” Pfeiffer told the Montana Missoulian in 1995. “We were moved by a philosophy of the social responsibility of scientists. I still believe very strongly that it is the duty of scientists to inform the public about matters of science that affect people’s lives. That’s something I hope young scientists continue.”
Atomic testing in Nevada began on Jan. 27, 1951, and was welcomed by Nevada officials as economic development, an attitude toward all things nuclear that continued until the late 1970s. Nevada journalists followed their lead and produced boosterish coverage of the tests. In addition, they ran news reports supportive of federal claims of harmless fallout: “Fallout on Las Vegas and vicinity following this morning’s detonation was very low and without any effects on health,” reported the Las Vegas Review Journal in March 1955.
The tide began to turn in the 1970s as statistical evidence of the incidence of leukemias and cancers downwind of the Nevada Test Site in Utah and Nevada shocked the nation. In 1980, a congressional report said, “All evidence suggesting that radiation was having harmful effects … was not only disregarded but actually suppressed.” In the 1990s, additional research reported that the human cost of the tests was far more widespread than previously thought, sweeping far to the east and up into Canada.
Pfeiffer’s social activism continued after his vindication on the fallout issue. On Jan. 31, 1971, he testified at hearings of the Winter Soldier Investigation, a project of the Vietnam veterans’ movement, on U.S. chemical warfare and defoliation in Vietnam. Drawing on three research trips to Indochina, he said, “The chemical war that the Americans have been carrying out in Vietnam and other areas in Indochina … is of two components … anti-plant warfare … and anti-personnel gases.” He suggested a link between the U.S. use of the herbicide Agent Orange and birth deformities in the Vietnamese that were starting to appear, a conjecture later demonstrated statistically.
Pfeiffer subsequently convinced the American Association for the Advancement of Science to treat the Vietnam War as an environmental issue.
In both the atomic testing and Agent Orange disputes, Pfeiffer ended up aiding soldiers, since service members were ordered to expose themselves to the Nevada tests.
Pfeiffer’s activism cost him a merit raise at UM at the height of the Vietnam War. Last week his Montana colleague, Jesse Bier, told the Missoulian, “He was often in the distinct minority, politically, and he was fearless.”