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.
Quinn noted that Gloucester was the place “dear to her heart.”
“She engaged in many efforts related to conserving and enhancing Gloucester’s beautiful natural environment,” said Quinn. In addition to her efforts to create Magnolia Woods, Hunt worked to maintain public access along Magnolia’s rocky shore.
“She would say that we should consider a beautiful, unobstructed, natural view as we do other precious natural resources and serve as stewards for the next generations,” recalled Quinn.
When Hunt retired in 1985, she returned to Magnolia and redoubled her local efforts. She served on the Citizens Advisory Committee to plan the safe capping and re-use of the former landfill which, in 2001, became the Magnolia Woods Recreational Facility. In 2002, she received the Civic and Garden Council’s Gloucester Award, given to a person who puts her concern for the environment into action. She was also the 2002 recipient of the Universalist Community Recognition Award, and the curator of natural history for the Magnolia Historical Society.
Catherine “Kitty” Hunt, one of her five children, remembers her mother as someone who had a ceaseless desire to understand everything around her, and she loved Gloucester.
“Everything caught her attention,” she said. “She was passionate about what was in front of her. When she was in Gloucester, she wanted to do Gloucester things, and when she was in Washington, she did international things and at Penn State, she did national things.”
Bruce Tobey, a former mayor for nine years, got to know Hunt well on a multiplicity of Magnolia issues.
“The woman was a force of nature. She played a critical role in the transformation of the Magnolia landfill into the Magnolia woods,” he said. “Magnolia had no better advocate. We have lost a voice, an intellect and a historical database. She will be remembered for her passion and intellectual energy.”
Sarah Dunlap, a Gloucester city archivist, said Hunt will be greatly missed.
“Vilma was a remarkable person, and she was just full of life and interests. She came into the archives and was always so excited about what we were doing,” said Dunlap. “I wish I had more time to spend with her. She was so kind and so clever and so much fun to be with.”
Her children noted that even as a youngster, she was known as the tiny curious child. She grew into a competitive swimmer with her sights set on the Olympics until World War II changed those plans. She served in the Australian Air Force and then took an unusual step for a woman and enrolled in dental school in Sydney. Dentistry took her to New Zealand and eventually to Harvard University, where she was part of an advanced training class of foreign students.
She began a master’s degree in physical anthropology and fell for her professor, Edward Hunt Jr. They married in 1952 and in 1956 bought a neglected Victorian “summer house” in the woods of Magnolia. The family grew to five children, Margaret, William, Louise and Catherine and foster daughter Martine Lebret.
In the early 1960s, Hunt tired of dentistry, completed training in radiation biology at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and became a research fellow in a Harvard School of Public Health physiology lab.
“With a nose for interesting subjects in public health, and some new radiation detectors delivered to the lab, she tested cigarette ash in the new machines. Further study found Polonium-210, a radioactive isotope, in tobacco smoke for the first time. A paper published in the journal Science in 1964 caused a publicity storm and resulted in an enduring reputation in the field of smoking prevention,” according to her family.
In Gloucester, Hunt put some of her new-found prominence to use in helping Destino’s Sub Shop start an early anti-smoking campaign where quitting smokers were invited to dump their last pack of cigarettes in a big container prominently displayed in the front of the store.
As a research scientist and working mother in the 1960s and 1970s, Hunt became an active feminist. Of particular interest to her was women’s health, with a focus on the workplace, and she published numerous articles, reports and the 1979 book, “Work and the Health of Women.”
She and her husband returned permanently to Cape Ann in 1985 with several tons of books and no shortage of projects to continue in “retirement.” Hunt continued to be active in professional, feminist, and environmental organizations and campaigns. As she settled into her older years, her interests focused closer to home, according to her children.
“Vilma was enchanted by the woods, the rocks, birds and creatures of her surroundings, and spent a half century observing, researching and writing about Cape Ann‘s natural world, sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm with others. She wrote columns for the Gloucester Daily Times over the years about the biology, geology and natural history of Cape Ann, and specifically Magnolia. She also took an interest in local history, especially the history of women and fisheries,” according to her family.
She and her husband Ed gathered and presided over an extensive “tribe” and welcomed hundreds of visitors — scientists, artists, musicians, writers and thinkers of all types — to their beloved home, Illawarra, who were welcome to stay for a meal or for months. She encouraged countless people, young and old, to be curious and not be boring, according to her family.
She is survived by her five children, Margaret Hunt, William Hunt, Louise Rounds, Catherine “Kitty” Hunt, and Martine Lebret; sons-in-law Jon Rounds and David Marro; daughter-in-law Maria Elena Gonzalez; seven grandchildren, James Jones-Rounds, Molly Rounds, Adrian, Devin and Riley Hunt, Pablo and Luisa Lebret-Gonzalez; granddaughter-in-law, McKenzie Jones-Rounds; two great-grandchildren, Felix and Arlo Jones-Rounds; and other extended family members. She was predeceased by her husband in 1991. A memorial service will be announced in the coming weeks. Memorial contributions may be made to the Magnolia Historical Society or a charity of one’s choice.
Gail McCarthy may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3445, or firstname.lastname@example.org.