In Memoriam: Lois Swirsky Gold 1941–2012

Dr. Gold joined SOT in 1993 and was a member of the Carcinogenesis, Regulatory and Safety Evaluation, and Risk Assessment Speciality Sections, as well the Northern California Regional Chapter.

By Bruce Ames, May 2012 

I first met Lois Gold in 1977 when she walked into my office to question me about a scientific paper we had just published. The paper was prompted by a government edict that children's cotton pajamas could not be sold unless they met very strict flammability standards. The only treatment that met the strict standards and didn't wash right out, was with the  brominated chemical, TRIS, to which 50 million American children were thus exposed. Because of this we bought pajamas in Europe for our children. We tested TRIS in the lab and showed that it was a mutagen, and thus a likely carcinogen, as was later shown in rodents. When our local paper had a story about our report in Science it prompted the visit from Lois. After about an hour of grilling from Lois about every aspect of flame retardants, flammability regulations, mutagenicity, carcinogenicity, skin absorption, and dose calculations, I was exhausted. I did have enough energy left, however, to hire her on the spot when I learned that she had some spare time while raising two kids, and that she wouldn't mind working part time. Moreover she had a PhD in Political Science (Pol. Sci.) from Stanford and was competent in statistical analyses.

She started working on a project I had initiated to set up a database of the world's animal cancer tests. It wasn't long before she was running the project and has until now.The database is used by every regulatory agency in the world and is consulted by the toxicology community all of the time. Lois became known as the world's expert on the potency of rodent carcinogens.

Lois and I have published well over 100 papers together. In trying to put risk in perspective, we got involved in a large number of controversies with chemical companies, regulators, environmentalists, and scientists who draw wrong conclusions by giving huge levels of chemicals daily to rodents. I think we won the scientific battles, but judging by the popularity of organic food and fear of trivial amounts of pesticides and synthetic chemicals we lost the PR wars.

Lois turned herself into a toxicologist, she has been on many national committees, and is widely known as one of the leading theoreticians in cancer toxicology. I remember the day when some toxicologist saw Lois' curriculum vitae, where she had put that her PhD was in Pol. Sci. and remarked to her "I think it is remarkable that you got your degree in Poultry Sciences."

As all of you who knew Lois know, she was a perfectionist about every detail. Lois wrote beautifully with very high grammatical standards, as I learned over the years as, together, we worked through innumerable drafts of all of those papers, and letters to the editor. We had epic discussions and on and off we lost patience with each other, but I am sure we also learned much from each other. She advised me repeatedly over the years on matters that were part of my program, but in which she was more expert than I, and especially she was of tremendous help in dealing with the public, when she always had a wise and tranquilizing influence on me.

Over the years Lois became much more than a collaborator and colleague. She became a dear friend to me and especially to my wife, Giovanna, who always sympathized with her when Lois and I had some of our turbulent interactions. The two of us will miss her sorely as a friend, a collaborator, and a colleague. Science and the public have lost an extraordinary scientist who instilled sanity in the controversy about trace chemical exposures.

I like to remember Lois as that bundle of energy ready to tackle some new controversy and determined to get the scholarship right.


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