Radiation biologist John H. Rust, DVM, PhD, 1907-2001

February 16, 2001

A pioneer in understanding the biological effects of exposure to radiation, John Howard Rust, DVM, PhD, professor emeritus of radiology and of pharmacological and physiological sciences at the University of Chicago, died February 11, 2001, at the University of Chicago Hospitals from complications from leukemia. He was 91.

Rust combined early training in veterinary pathology with subsequent interest in radiation biology to become one of the world's foremost experts on the nature of radiation injury. Beginning in 1950, he performed a series of classic studies to determine how different forms of radiation effected various farm animals. His findings became the standard models for estimating human risk. He also developed and tested methods to protect against radiation injury. Because of his unique knowledge, he was appointed to radiation safety committees for the World Health Organization, the United States Public Health Service, the National Academy of Sciences, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The world will remember him as one of the leaders in understanding the pathology of radiation, but his friends and colleagues will recall a big, tall, husky guy with a wonderful sense of humor, an extraordinary sensitivity to animals, a real feeling for people and genuine compassion for his students," recalled colleague Willard J. Visek, PhD, MD, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Illinois.

"He was an immensely productive scientist, a wonderfully generous man and one of the most effective yet modest scholars you could ever hope to meet," recalled Richard Landau, MD, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Chicago. "You would never know he was a renowned scientist if you didn't ask."

“John Rust was a gentleman. He was courtly in the old-fashioned sense of the word,” said John Fennessy, MD, professor of radiology at the University of Chicago. "He was a very complex character, one of the pioneers in the development of nuclear medicine and an authority on the behavior of radioisotopes, but he wore this immense knowledge very lightly. He did not flaunt his intellect."

John Howard Rust was born the son of a farmer in Many, Louisiana, on September 29, 1909. His father died when he was only 9, in the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, plunging the family into poverty. His mother, a great believer in education, temporarily entrusted her children to relatives and went back to school to prepare for a career in teaching that culminated with her appointment as a professor of home economics at Kansas State University and publication of a textbook that was used nationwide.

Rust trained to be a veterinarian, earning his doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Kansas State University in 1932, at the height of the Depression. Although he had been accepted for graduate study at several universities, Rust couldn't afford to remain in school, so he joined a veterinary private practice in New Hampshire. In 1935 he entered the United States Army Veterinary Corps. In the Army, he received additional training at Duke and the University of Chicago in medicine, biophysics and radiation biology.

In 1950 he was sent to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to serve as the pathologist for the Atomic Energy Commission's Agricultural Research Program, which studied the effects of radiation on farm animals. In 1954, still in the Army, he returned to the University of Chicago as a research project officer at the toxicity laboratory, where he studied the effects of radiation on metabolism. While performing this research, he earned his Ph.D. in pharmacology in 1956 from the University.

Rust rose steadily through the military ranks until he become a Colonel and chief of veterinary pathology for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. He retired from the Army in 1958, "to avoid promotion to General," recalled his son James Rust, "which would have taken him out of the laboratory."

Rust lectured on food safety and toxicology for one year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology then joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1959. He helped design and served as director of the animal research facility at the University from 1967 to 1972. He retired from the University in 1973 but continued to consult on radiation safety and toxicology for public utilities and pharmaceutical companies until 1990. In 1992 he was part of a select team of western scientists and engineers who were invited to visit the site of the Chernobyl accident.

The author or co-author of more than 150 research papers and co-editor of eight books on the uses and effects of radiation and on radiation injury, Rust was a major national figure in discussions of risk and in setting the standards for radiation safety. He served on the World Health Organization expert committee on radiation, on the National Research Council's advisory committee on civil defense, on U.S. Public Health Service committees on environmental radiation exposure and on long-term radiation effects, and on National Academy of Science committees on food protection and on the disposal of radioactive waste.

Rust's data-driven no-nonsense approach to the study of radiation injury did not protect him from controversy. He was accused of being part of a cover-up by Utah ranchers in the 1954 "sheepgate" affair, when his investigation revealed that the sheep had died, not, as alleged, from radiation injury from fallout, but from starvation after not being fed during a particularly harsh winter. "As a former farm boy," noted his son James, "he understood this situation."

He also understood under-funded students. Rust and his wife, Mary Jo Cortelyou, whom he married in 1932, maintained a revolving account, estimated at $60,000, that they dipped into to provide interest-free loans for needy students. "Once he got to know a student, he would do anything to help him," recalled Visek."

Mrs. Rust died in 1989. They are survived by their four children: Mary Townsend of Newton, Massachusetts; James Rust of Evanston, Illinois; Jack Rust of Irving, Texas; and Joan Johnson of Willowbrook, Illinois; and by eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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