Lester Skaggs, Ph.D. (1911-2009)

April 25, 2009 · Written by MDPhysics.com · mdphysicsblog@gmail.com

lesterskaggsLast week the medical physics community lost a pioneer.

Lester Skaggs, Ph.D. passed away on April 3, 2009 at the age of 97 of complications from renal failure. In a career that spanned almost 70 years, his contributions were not only numerous but enduring. A leader and innovator in the truest sense of the word, Dr. Skaggs’s work in the field of medical physics over the course of his career is inspiring for young and established medical physicists alike. Our sincerest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

From the Chicago Tribune:

Lester Skaggs helped develop the detonation device for the first atomic bombs as a physicist with the Manhattan Project and then turned his attention to pioneering medical applications for radiation.

A professor at the University of Chicago from 1948 to 1997, Dr. Skaggs, 97, died of complications from renal failure Friday, April 3, in Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, U. of C. spokesman John Easton said.

Shortly after joining the U. of C., Dr. Skaggs was put in charge of developing radiation therapy facilities at the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital, the first medical facility to use radiation to treat cancer when it opened in 1953. (The hospital is now part of University of Chicago Medical Center.)

Along with colleague Lawrence Lanzl, Dr. Skaggs built a linear accelerator, called the Lineac, for medical applications. The Lineac took eight years to finish and cost $450,000. Completed in 1959, the machine was used for 34 years to treat patients from all over the country.

The Lineac was an extension of pioneering work in medical radiation Dr. Skaggs and Lanzl did beginning in 1945. With colleagues from the University of Illinois, they used a high-energy radiation betatron to treat a physics graduate student with a brain tumor, said Lanzl’s wife, Elisabeth, a graduate student who participated in the work.

Although the student died, the treatment shrunk his tumor and was documented in articles that advanced the understanding the medical uses of high-energy radiation, Elisabeth Lanzl said.

Dr. Skaggs designed and built an early analog computer to measure radiation dose to various issues in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, he, with colleague Franca Kuchnir, developed a method to produce neutrons for radiation therapy.

After retiring from the U. of C., Dr. Skaggs spent five years working on a neutron-therapy facility at a hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. 

Raised on a farm in Missouri, Dr. Skaggs rode a horse three miles to his one-room schoolhouse. In high school, he and a friend built a radio, seeding his fascination with technical machinery, said his daughter Margaret Skaggs.

He got a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s in physics form the University of Missouri, then studied nuclear physics at the University of Chicago, completing his doctorate in 1939.

He worked briefly at Michael Reese Hospital and with the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, then decamped for Los Alamos to take part in the top secret Manhattan Project.

The mission given him and colleagues was to develop a virtually fail-safe fuse for the atomic bomb. The trick was to set off the bomb in a way that allowed the plane that dropped it fly away safely.

The team came up with a detonation device triggered in relation to its distance from the ground. During his tenure at the U. of C. Dr. Skaggs lived in Park Forest.

Dr. Skaggs’ wife, Ruth, died in 2005.

Survivors include a son, John; a daughter, Mary Anderson; a sister, Lillian Foster; and three grandchildren.

Two memorial services will be held on May 16, the first at 10 a.m. in Faith United Protestant Church, 10 Hemlock St., Park Forest, the second at 3 p.m. in Montgomery Place, 5550 South Shore Drive, Chicago.

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