Obituary: Dr. Eleanor Reed Adair

Eleanor Reed Adair, a Charter member of The Bioelectromagnetics Society, passed away on 20 April 2013 at the age of 86 years.  Dr. Adair, known universally as Ellie, authored the first paper in the inaugural edition of the Society’s Journal Bioelectromagnetics in 1980, and served as the Secretary/Treasurer of BEMS from 1981-1983.  In 2003, a special issue of Bioelectromagnetics was dedicated to her by the U.S. Air Force. She received the d'Arsonval Medal, the society’s highest honor, in 2007.

After graduating from Mount Holyoke College, where she studied psychology, Ellie earned her PhD at the University of Wisconsin with a major in sensory psychology and a minor in physics, a rare combination of fields at the time, but one that benefited her later career in bioelectromagnetics.  She moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where she first carried out behavioral research at Yale University and subsequently at the affiliated John B. Pierce Foundation for 36 years. Her work during that time primarily concerned the mechanisms of thermoregulation in squirrel monkeys.  In 1996, at age 70, Ellie accepted a five year position as Senior Scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Brooks City-Base in San Antonio Texas, where she completed a series of 5 foundational studies on the physiological effects in humans of whole body microwave exposure. Dr. Adair is one of the few scientists in the world who has studied in detail the response of humans and primates to thermal RF-field exposures. The results from her thermal regulation work form the scientific cornerstone of current human RF field exposure limits over the range 100 to 2450 MHz.

In addition to her research, Dr. Adair was active in a number of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE) activities including participation on the IEEE Committee on Man and Radiation (COMAR).  For more than 20 years Ellie was a major contributor to IEEE safety standards that protect against adverse effects associated with exposure to electromagnetic energy.  Ellie co-chaired Subcommittee 4 of IEEE Standards Coordinating Committee 28 (SCC28) during development of IEEE Standard C95.1-1991, “IEEE Standard for Safety Levels with Respect to Human Exposure to Radio Frequency Electromagnetic Fields, 3 kHz to 300 GHz,” and was inaugural chair of the International Committee of Electromagnetic Safety (ICES) during the development of a number of standards, including IEEE C95.6-2002, “IEEE Standard for Safety Levels with Respect to Human Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields, 0–3 kHz.”  Her long-term contributions and leadership helped establish ICES as a major international organization. 

Ellie was a strong and vibrant personality in the RF bioeffects world and a strong leader. She frequently expressed the belief that there were many beneficial uses of microwaves that were yet to be exploited and regretted that the exposure standards were set at such a conservative level. Among visionary applications of microwaves, she supported comfort heating of humans by microwaves (proposed by Prof. R. Pound of Harvard University) and a satellite-based system using microwaves to transfer a large quantity of solar power to an earth-based antenna tied to the electric power grid. She often courageously defended current technology, e.g., the safety of police radar on the 60 Minutes TV program in the early 1990s.  Among her many other contributions to the field of bioelectromagnetics was the co-founding of the Michaelson Research Conferences, which she continued to attend with her husband Prof. Robert (Bob) Adair, even as her health began to fail.

While her snow white hair, beaming smile, and penetrating questions were regular features at BEMS meetings, many members may not know of her lifelong love of mountains and her contributions to the people of Tibet.  Ellie was a member of the Board of the American Himalayan Foundation for many years, and worked closely with them and Sir Edmund Hillary’s Himalayan Trust to better the lives of the peoples of the Himalaya, building clinics and schools, preventing the trafficking of young girls, planting trees, and restoring holy sites across Nepal.

During her tenure on the board, she was privileged to advise His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the use of science in improving the world.  She personally trekked extensively in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Tibet and Bhutan, as well as in Peru, Alaska and the American Southwest, but she was not a climber, and base camp was the highest she went on Mount Everest.

Ellie Adair’s outstanding and award-winning contributions to the field of bioeffects of RF exposure will stand the test of time. "Good science is never outdated," as the first d’Arsonval Awardee, Prof Herman Schwan, once said. Ellie produced nothing but excellent science.

Ellie is survived by her husband, son Douglas Adair, daughter Margaret Adair Quinn, two grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Condolences and remembrances may be sent to the family at


Contributors:  M.R. Murphy, C-K. Chou, and A. R. Sheppard