Reflections on Nancy Wertheimer


“I was president of the Bioelectromagnetics Society when Nancy Wertheimer won the D’Arsonval Award so I introduced her at the awards presentation. The d’Arsonval Award is presented by BEMS to recognize outstanding achievement in bioelectromagnetics. Dr. Wertheimer was the first woman to receive this distinction.

She had been a member of the Bioelectromagnetics Society for many years and was recognized by colleagues on an international scale as the person most instrumental in pointing out the potential health hazards of power lines and environmental electromagnetic fields. Her quiet but serious approach to investigating electromagnetic field effects had been noted and appreciated by many in the society for years prior to this award.

We will all miss her because she had such a warm and unassuming unassuming personality even though she never agreed with all the compliments we bestowed upon her!”

Betty Sisken
Lexington, KY

“Nancy Wertheimer’s first paper on the relationship between power lines and childhood leukemia was the proverbial butterfly’s wing that began a far-reaching cascade, in this instance of further research. It stimulated more epidemiological studies, development of methods for field surveys of ELF fields, extrapolation of these data to population exposure estimates, and a wide variety of investigation into interaction mechanisms. Many new papers published today still cite Wertheimer and Leeper (1979) as motivation in their introductions.”

Ben Greenebaum
Parkside, WI

“A couple of years after Nancy shook up the BEMS community with her report on childhood leukemia she embarked on another 60 Hz study examining the possible correlation between electric blankets and miscarriages. I was in Washington when I learned that she was going to present some data on this subject at the venerable New York Academy of Sciences. I was able to get a cheap shuttle flight to New York to attend this evening talk. It was practically standing room only. I remember many of the other attendees, including Sol Michaelson, Art Pilla, and Louis Slesin. As always her talk was clean, crisp and fascinating, unencumbered by the negative mind set that always accompanied such politically charged topics. Afterwards she was subjected to some withering criticism, mainly surrounding the questionable use of epidemiological techniques to elicit information about 60 Hz hazards. Throughout her demeanor was calm, and, even sweet, as she smiled to those in the audience who were the most insulting. This is how I will always remember Nancy, capable of making discoveries that others failed to see, and completely self-assured in her abilities.

As a postscript to that memorable evening on New York’s East Side, a few years later the manufacturers of electric blankets made the necessary wiring changes to reduce the 60 Hz magnetic field at the blanket surface.”

A R Liboff
Boca Raton, FL

“I attended the memorial service held for Nancy Wertheimer here in Boulder and was impressed by the extensiveness and devotion of her family -- including all of her children and adult grandchildren. Like most of her BEMS colleagues, I had known her primarily from her scientific work, so it was quite inspirational to learn about the other dimensions of her life.

I first met Nancy, and Ed Leeper, when they visited us at the University of Colorado shortly after I joined the faculty. At that time they expressed an interest in the bioeffects of EMF that we were studying mainly in the RF and microwave domains - but I think we were helpful to them in devising a stratagem for estimating, at least by rank order, the magnitude of ELF fields adjacent to power lines.

As everyone now knows, they were able to combine some physics principles, some engineering advise and some good-old intuition in devising their “Wiring Code” approach to dosimetry and used that to imply an association between power line fields and the occurrence of childhood cancers in the Denver-Boulder area. When their work caught the attention of a group in upstate New York who were opposed to the construction of a new transmission line, the New York State Power Authority commissioned a broad study of the issue and came to us at CU to try to replicate and improve on Nancy and Ed’s childhood cancer study.

All told, my scientific interactions with Nancy lasted for over twenty years and, throughout that time, I always respected her creative thinking abilities and her willingness to discuss points of difference as well as agreement between us. Nancy and I did not always agree on the interpretation of the various studies that we were both involved in, but I always enjoyed having the opportunity to work with her, She was a truly unique individual and will be sorely missed.”

Howard Wachtel
Boulder, CO

“Nancy Wertheimer has a singular place in bioelectromagnetics as a pioneer whose curiosity about possible neighborhood factors in childhood leukemia led to a seminal 1979 publication that sparked a decades-long investigation into the role of power frequency magnetic fields in health and biology. Her initial data were acquired with characteristic directness, simplicity, and insight simply by walking the streets and alleys in greater Denver with equipment no more elaborate than the human eye, a pen, and a stack of index cards. That 1979 paper, “Electrical wiring configurations and childhood cancer,” published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, put Nancy and physicist colleague Ed Leeper in the eye of a storm of controversy. As in the 1982 paper on adult leukemia that followed, Wertheimer and Leeper devised power line wire codes as a technique to measure exposure without attempting to engage with all the complexities of a complete characterization of the electric and magnetic fields in each home, an undertaking that went forward much later in the hands of others. Their papers introduced the hypothesis of a causal mechanism for leukemia that directly or indirectly involved environmental 60-Hz magnetic fields. Then, as now, the question was, “Could that really be true?” This became the stimulus for hundreds of others who eventually followed in trying to understand what was going on.

The observed associations — like Wertheimer and Leeper themselves — were pushed aside for several years by critics finding faults in the limitations of their methods and observations that lacked a firm mechanistic explanation. However, in 1986 David Savitz and collaborators at the University of Colorado reported comparable results that propelled bioelectromagnetics into the spotlight worldwide and led to RAPID, a multi-year research project mandated by the U.S. Congress, and research programs in many other nations. Staying far from any spotlight, Nancy pursued possible causal factors for the improbable association of weak magnetic fields and cancer using analytic techniques of striking creativity and clarity. The fact that Nancy and Ed worked without major funding is not simply incidental to the overall economy with which they practiced science.

For more than a quarter century, many others have undertaken epidemiologic and engineering research of growing intensity and complexity that sprang from Nancy’s open-minded inquiry into possible causes of childhood leukemia. Much has been learned, but at her death, there remains a seemingly irreducible uncertainty about whether the initial reports by Wertheimer and Leeper are essentially right or wrong in pointing to magnetic fields as a possible causal factor. Perhaps this in itself is a fitting epitaph to a scientist with an unblinkered respect for facts as they are, however unsatisfyingly incomplete the picture and tentative the conclusions.

I learned much about Nancy when she became a collaborator in a pooled analysis of data from various studies worldwide that followed hers. Working with her as she generously transcribed the original records of her study into a format suitable for pooled analysis, I soon found that her fastidious approach to data was matched by a precision with language that, true to the mark of a fine intellect, did not allow fuzzy ideas, overstatements, and inexact wording.

Nancy brought many personal gifts to her career in science, none more powerful than a deep and natural humility that allowed her to stand before data, as before her challengers, with complete respect and without a touch of arrogance. Her simple way of being meant that while others engaged busily in profiting from the career and business opportunities she made possible, Nancy maintained her unquestionable integrity as an independent worker freely pursuing scientific questions that interested her. The dignity with which she bore her tall frame was in its wordless way a perfect rejoinder to those who attacked her.

I am saddened by the passing of this woman of grace and quiet strength. Her unique ways of being a human conducting scientific inquiry are worthy of long reflection. They and she will not be forgotten by those privileged to have known her.”

Asher R. Sheppard
Redlands, CA

“Nancy Wertheimer (and Ed Leeper) burst on the bioelectromagnetics scene in 1979 with the publication of their famous childhood leukemia paper (American Journal of Epidemiology 109:273-284). Sometime after this, the Electric Power Research Institute held a meeting in the Denver area at which they invited Nancy to present her results. I do not remember that I actually met Nancy there, but I do distinctly remember the intensity of the criticism of her study among many if not most of the attendees. Indeed, Nancy and Ed’s work was widely criticized in those early days. I have always thought that Nancy handled this better than most and exhibited a remarkable level of perseverance and self-motivation in continuing her work in the face of so much negative comment.

In about 1983, the New York Power Lines Project issued a RFP relating to epidemiological research. They funded two studies, one a childhood leukemia study at the University of Colorado, the second an adult leukemia study at Battelle Northwest. In the spring of 1984, a meeting was arranged between these two research groups in Denver. Since it was clear that wire coding would have to be part of the exposure assessment used in both studies, Nancy and Ed were invited to attend. On the plane flight to Denver, I read Nancy’s 1979 paper carefully, particularly the section about wire coding, and decided that I understood it. The next day, after various discussions, we adjourned to a local alley to look at wiring. I positioned myself close to Nancy and I still remember her asking me about a particular wiring configuration we encountered. That was when I discovered that wire coding was harder than it sounded on paper. By the end of our alley tour, it was evident that I had a lot to learn. I hastily arranged to meet with Nancy the next day in Boulder and spent that day walking down alleys and being instructed by her. This training was crucial.

I subsequently participated in several studies that included wire coding. For each study, I drew up a detailed protocol for the wire-coding component and generally asked Nancy to review what I had done. She always did this graciously. The largest epidemiologic study I worked on that involved wire coding was the so-called NCI study, a study of leukemia in children that started in 1989 and whose main results were published in 1997 (The New England Journal of Medicine 337:1-7). My colleagues and I put a great deal of effort into the wire coding component of the study, and I (secretly) expected that we would find an association between wire code and leukemia risk similar to that observed in most previous U.S. studies. I was truly shocked to discover that there was no observed association at all!

Nancy always argued that we had erred in using her wire coding system in areas other than Denver. She felt that her (and Ed’s) system was designed specifically for the Denver area and the construction practices used by the utility there. She felt that one should develop a customized wire coding system for each area and utility involved in a study. My counter argument was that the correlation between wire codes and measured magnetic fields was as good in the areas covered by the NCI study as it was in Denver. To this day, I do not think it is known with any certainty whether either view is correct.

In the late 1990’s, I several times contemplated nominating Nancy for the D’Arsonval award of the Bioelectromagnetics Society. However, each time, I convinced myself that her work was sufficiently controversial to prevent this award. I was certainly wrong here, as someone else (I do not know who, but thank you for doing so) did nominate her and she received the award in 1999. I believe this award was well deserved: Prior to Nancy and Ed’s 1979 paper, the focus was on electric fields produced by high-voltage transmission lines. This paper started a process that, ten years later, resulted in a research focus almost entirely on magnetic fields produced by lower-voltage distribution lines and home wiring.

I was saddened to hear of Nancy’s death. She was a truly gentle and kind person, a good friend and my early teacher. Nearly all of Nancy’s work in Bioelectromagnetics was not funded. I once asked her why she did not apply for funding. She told me that she occasionally thought of this but usually could not bring herself to do so. I think she enjoyed the independence she had as a result of not being funded, and I suspect that this independence enabled her to see things in ways that we funded researchers tended to miss.”

Bill Kaune
Port Townsend, WA

“I remember Nancy Wertheimer as a creative and thoughtful person. She was always cautious about appearing too convinced of her EMF results because she knew the limitations associated with epidemiological work. Nevertheless, her expressed caution caused her observations to take on greater weight. She was always probing to try to understand the results she observed in a larger context. I remember receiving occasional phone calls from Nancy to discuss some effects reported to be caused by low intensity ELF EMF because she thought they might help her as she continued to evaluate her published data. Nancy was cordial to every one, and was highly motivated by her research results to find both the cause and the public health significance of her observations. Nancy was a pioneer in Bioelectromagnetics who truly deserved to receive the d’Arsonval Award.”

Carl Blackman
Raleigh, NC

Nancy Wertheimer, Ph.D., (April 30, 1927-December 25, 2007)