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January 3, 2013

Local activist and national radiation expert dies

Hunt worked on Magnolia Woods, Three Mile Island

One of Cape Ann’s intellectual dynamos, Vilma Rose (Dalton-Webb) Hunt — a scientist, writer, feminist, professor, mentor, dentist and activist — died at her Magnolia home on Dec. 29, 2012, at the age of 86.

Her intellect, activism and influence was spread in many fields, including women’s health and pay equity in the workplace, radioactivity in tobacco, environmental justice, the history of uranium and the natural and human history of her beloved Cape Ann.

Just 5 feet, 2 inches tall, a “spitfire” with an ever-reaching mind, she is remembered by one friend as the “little, tiny giant.”

A native Australian, a 24-year-old Hunt came to the United States for training and to Gloucester more than 55 years ago. Her research on radioactivity in cigarette smoke, which she discovered while at the Harvard School of Public Health in the 1960s, brought her national and international reputation. Later Hunt taught environmental health at the Yale School of Medicine and at Pennsylvania State University.

Between 1979 and 1981, she served as an administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dealing with the health effects of environmental poisoning, including the Love Canal toxic waste dump and Three Mile Island, a nuclear disaster. She was a founding member, along with Lois M. Gibbs, of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which has been involved in most of the major North American environmental justice campaigns of the last 30 years.

Margaret Quinn, a Gloucester resident and professor in the School of Health and Environment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, described Hunt as a “luminary” in their field of environmental health.

“She was a renaissance woman — a scholar, book author, high-level government administrator for health research, environmental and labor activist — always using rigorous science to inform these efforts. She made important contributions to our knowledge about women, work, and health and towards encouraging women to enter the sciences, at a time when these fields were mostly men, including me and Anne Knowlton who is a cardiologist at the University of California Medical School,” said Quinn.

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