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David Rall, Long-Time Director of NIEHS, Mourned

Dr. David Platt Rall, 73, a cancer researcher who simultaneously headed both the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, died Sept. 28 in Bordeaux, France, as the result of injuries suffered in an automobile accident 10 days earlier. He was 73 and resided in Washington, D.C.

Dr. David Platt Rall

For 19 years, before his retirement in 1990, Rall headed NIEHS, located in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and held the rank of assistant surgeon general in the Public Health Service.

Dr. Kenneth Olden, the current director of NIEHS and NTP, said, "The study of how the environment affects our health has lost a pioneer. Dr. Rall established the credibility of our two federal environmental health organizations and set the pace. His name is synonymous with environmental health research. In our current research on human susceptibility to the environment and on alternative test methods, we are standing on his broad shoulders. I personally valued his advice and support during my tenure and will miss him very much."

More recently, Rall chaired the World Health Organization's Program on Chemical Safety, and held a variety of other positions including foreign secretary of the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, board member of the Environmental Defense Fund, and a member of the board of scientific counselors of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. He was an officer of the Collegium Ramazzini, an organization devoted to the scientific study of occupational and environmental health globally, which is establishing a scholarship fund for environmental health students from underdeveloped nations. Rall was also a board member of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning and scientific director of the Hawaii Heptachlor Study.

A native of Naperville, Ill., where his father was president of North Central College, Rall received a bachelor's degree there in 1950, followed by M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from Northwestern University in 1952. He interned at New York City's Bellevue Hospital on the Cornell division before joining the National Cancer Institute in 1954.

At NCI, his early research led, among other things, to methods for preventing the spread of leukemia to the brain. Meanwhile, he became increasingly interested in the dilemma that anti-cancer drugs — in the doses needed to be effective — tend to be highly toxic and may even predispose patients who are successfully treated for a first cancer to develop a later malignancy.

That in turn kindled his interest in using studies of laboratory animals to predict toxic effects in patients and then in systematically exploring the impact of chemicals in the environment on the health of people in various occupations and in the population at large. This made him a logical choice to head NIEHS.

Later, he became the first director of the National Toxicology Program, which was headquartered at NIEHS. According to Dr. Donald S. Fredrickson, who was NIH director at the time, "The program succeeded only because David Rall agreed to head it." Fredrickson called him "a consummate public servant" for having developed "one of the world's greatest institutions for environmental science" in the face of technical difficulties and the frequent hostility of industry.

In much the same vein, Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.) remembered the many occasions on which Rall testified before the House appropriations committee on behalf of his institute. "Dr. Rall was committed to scientific excellence," said Obey. "He was respected for that in industry as well as in the labor and environmental movements. But he was not a bloodless researcher. He never forgot that the main problem we were trying to solve was what disease did to real live human beings and real families."

In his scientific career of nearly half a century, Rall was principal or sole author of some 180 scientific papers and the recipient of many national and international honors. His work, according to Prof. Ellen Silbergeld of the University of Maryland, confirmed him as "truly the intellectual and ethical founder of modern environmental medicine. His wisdom nurtured the careers of all of us."

Rall's first wife, Edith Levy Rall, died in 1987. He is survived by his widow, Gloria Monteiro Rall, two children, Jonathan David Rall of Irvine, Calif., and Catharyn Elspeth Ertel of Siegsdorf, Germany, two grandchildren, Jennifer and Lisa Ertel, and an elder brother, Dr. Edward Rall of Kensington, Md.

Plans are being made for a memorial service.

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