In Memoriam: Powell (Jim) Richards

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Posted: June 2, 2010

Powell (Jim) Richards, who joined BNL on October 11, 1948, and retired as a senior engineer in the Medical Department on June 30, 1983, died at 92 on April 8, 2010.

The following obituary was written by a Brookhaven Lab colleague, Suresh Srivastava of the Redionuclide and Radiopharmaceutical Research and Production Program, in the Medical Department.

Powell "Jim" Richards, who lived at Cypress Glen, Greenville, North Carolina, died quietly in his sleep on Thursday, April 8, 2010, at the age of 92 from complications resulting from a series of strokes.

Walter Tucker (left) and Powell Richards

Walter Tucker (left) and Powell Richards (right) in the picture above, were considered to be the medical radioisotope pioneers at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Tucker, working with Margaret Greene, in 1958 created the first molybdenum-99/technetium-99m generator (pictured on right). Thereafter, Richards enthusiastically continued to foster its development for medicine [1]. At present, more than 80 percent of almost 20 million diagnostic radiopharmaceutical injections, given in the United States yearly, use technetium-99m.

Jim Richards retired from the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in 1983 where he had worked as a nuclear physicist since 1948. He specialized in the development and promotion of many radionuclides, including technetium-99m [1], for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. Many of these continue to be used in hospitals throughout the world. He was an active member of many professional organizations, in particular the Society of Nuclear Medicine, and received many awards and honors over the course of a long and distinguished career.  Among these were the Radiation Industry Award from the American Nuclear Society in 1972, and the Paul Aebersold Award of the Society of Nuclear Medicine in 1977. Richards was recognized for “his scientific contributions and unceasing efforts leading to the introduction, development, and use of technetium-99m as an imaging isotope in diagnostic nuclear medicine”. He was named Honorary President of the Third International Symposium on Technetium in Chemistry and Nuclear Medicine that was held in Montegrotto Terme (Padova), Italy, during September 6 – 8, 1989.  On October 16, 1998, the pharmaceutical giant Mallinckrodt Medical, which had featured him in their 1977 calendar as one of “The Founders of Nuclear Medicine,” dedicated a new building to him at their European headquarters in Petten, The Netherlands, installing a bronze plaque with his prophetic words, in the nineteen-sixties, about the isotope: “Technetium-99m should be a useful research tool; it combines a short half-life and unique radiation characteristics. The absence of beta radiation reduces the amount of damage to biological systems usually associated with radioisotopes.” 
Jim was born in 1917 in Philadelphia and attended UNC at Chapel Hill in the Chemical Engineering program. He was an avid athlete, playing soccer, track and basketball in high school and college. He began his career in 1939 at DuPont near Wilmington, DE. With war looming, he was hired by the U.S. government and assigned to Oak Ridge, TN, to work on the development of the government’s nuclear program. He was ultimately involved in the 'Manhattan Project,' a top-secret venture to develop the atomic bomb.
Jim’s enthusiasm for research exerted a contagious influence on the numerous fellow co-workers in the laboratory and on the multitude of scientists who came to work and train under him. He always posed interesting questions about the very basics of the chemistry involved in radiopharmaceutical development, which eventually led all of us to devise simpler, more practical solutions to complex procedures. To quote one of his former colleagues: “Jim had an uncanny intuition (usually correct) about how things worked - sort of Edisonian”.
During his tenure at BNL, Jim also played a central role in the development of the BLIP (Brookhaven Linac Isotope Producer) facility, which began functioning in 1972, as part of the Radionuclide and Radiopharmaceutical Research (R&RR) and Production program at BNL. For over four decades, initially under Jim’s watch, this program has continued to be a world-class program. It has made major contributions to nuclear medicine; indeed many of the radionuclides and/or radiopharmaceuticals developed in this program have, and continue to be, used in patients for diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. Examples include the technetium-99m generator, Tc-99m-labeled radiopharmaceuticals, blood cell labeling kits, thallium-201, iodine-123, xenon-127, copper-67, tin-117m, and many other radionuclides. For a number of these developments, the credit goes mainly to Jim Richards.
On the personal side as well, Jim was a highly accomplished and successful individual.  His many positive attributes included a great love for life and a very close relationship with his family and friends.  He excelled in all the essential qualities of a scientist that include intuition, imagination, vision, and perseverance.  Jim was a thorough gentleman and extremely considerate of others.  He possessed the enviable ability to make people feel at ease in his presence.  I always found his friendly demeanor nothing short of exemplary.  He was always willing to help his students, colleagues, and friends regardless of how busy he was.
I have had the privilege of knowing Jim for over 30 years, first as a mentor when I joined the “Technetium Chemistry Group” within the R&RR Program at BNL in 1975, then as a research colleague until his retirement. I consider myself as being extremely fortunate to also have enjoyed a very close and unconditional friendship with him.  Jim Richards’ death was a deep personal loss.
Upon retiring from Brookhaven in 1983 Jim moved to New Bern, NC. He and his wife were active members of the New Bern Golf and Country Club. Two years following the 1999 death of Shirley, his wife of over 40 years, he moved to Cypress Glen in Greeneville, NC.
 Jim Richards is survived by four children, Fred Richards of New Bern, NC, Mary Jo Conway of Sarasota, FL, Randy Pitcher of Ft. Lauderdale FL, and Jim Richards of Philadelphia, PA, seven grandchildren, and ten great grandchildren.


[1]  P. Richards, W.D. Tucker, and S.C. Srivastava. Technetium‑99m: An historical perspective. International Journal of Applied Radiation and Isotopes 33, 793 - 799 (1982).
Richards joined the hot laboratory division in BNL’s Nuclear Energy Department as an associate technical specialist on October 11, 1948. He rose to associate technical specialist Group Leader in May 1953, then to technical specialist in July 1956, radio chemistry engineer I in July 1958, associate engineer in July 1959 and engineer in 1965. In February 1969, he joined the Department of Applied Science, transferring to the Medical Department in July 1965. He was promoted to senior engineer in 1979. He retired from Medical on June 30, 1983, continuing with a guest appointment through September 30, 1988.


Last Modified: June 2, 2010