Friday, March 22, 2013

John Landis:

Remembrance of a Nuclear Pioneer

I recently had an e-mail message informing me of the death of John Landis on March 16, 2013 at the age of 95.  I haven't noticed the news elsewhere, so although there are others who certainly know John better than I did, I wanted to devote this post to citing his accomplishments and his contributions to the nuclear field, some from my own personal knowledge and some from his obituary

I did know John through some American Nuclear Society (ANS) activities.  John was one of the founders of ANS, and served as its president from 1971-2.  I did not get active in ANS until some time after that, but I always heard him referred to as one of ANS's most outstanding presidents.  What I do know about John and the ANS is that he continued to be active in ANS--and to be an ardent supporter of ANS--for the rest of his life.

Particularly noteworthy is his financial support of the ANS through the John and Muriel Landis Scholarship for disadvantaged students of nuclear engineering.  Over the years, a number of these scholarships have been awarded, and I know it's made a difference in the lives and careers of many students.  It is through these scholarships that I got to know John, during the time I served as chair of the ANS Honors and Awards Committee.  (One of the really nice things about serving in this role was that I received letters from several students sharing their stories of how ANS scholarships, including John's, made a real difference to them.)  Later, as ANS president, I always felt I walked in the shadow of John and several other luminaries of the nuclear field who had preceded me as ANS presidents.

From John's obituary, I learned more details of his career than I ever knew when I worked with him.  While I always knew he was a pioneer in the field, I did not know just how much of a pioneer he was until I read his obituary.  A key excerpt summarizes a lot of his "firsts":
  • John's 50-year career in the nuclear industry started in 1950 when he began working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, D.C. He participated in developing the rudimentary ground rules for the design of nuclear power plants. He oversaw some of the first research projects on nuclear energy and prepared material for some of the earliest courses in reactor technology.
  • In 1953 John joined the Atomic Energy Division of the Babcock and Wilcox Company. In 1955 he was put in charge of the Division's operations in Lynchburg, Virginia: the world's first privately-owned center for nuclear research, development, and testing. In 1961 John was named Manager of the Atomic Energy Division. While at Babcock and Wilcox, he oversaw the design of the reactor for the first civilian nuclear ship, the N.S. Savannah. He also contributed to the inception and design of the nuclear power station at Indian Point, New York, the first built in the U.S. without government subsidy.
 I was interested to discover that these were some of the key events I profiled in my book on nuclear firsts, so I know from my own research that the areas cited above were some of the key milestones in the early days of nuclear power development.

Clearly, we have lost one of the giants in the field, both in terms of his technical contributions to the field, in terms of his contributions to the ANS, and in terms of his support of students.  He truly had a positive influence on the lives and careers of many people.  My condolences to his family and to his many friends and admirers. 


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