Page last updated at 11:06 GMT, Friday, 24 April 2009 12:06 UK

Sixth death linked to university

By Martin Shankleman
BBC News

Professor Tom Whiston
Professor Whiston developed the first automated Braille machine

A sixth person who worked in a Manchester University building used by Lord Rutherford, and contaminated by radiation and mercury, has died.

Professor Tom Whiston, 70, a psychology lecturer, died from cancer at his home in Sussex.

He occupied the building where the Nobel Prize winning scientist carried out his experiments on atomic structure using radioactive radon.

An independent inquiry into any health risks at the building is under way.

Professor Whiston is the third occupant of the Rutherford Building to have died of pancreatic cancer in the last two years.

All three worked in rooms used by the scientist for his experiments. A fourth colleague, who also worked in the building, died of a brain tumour in 1992.

A computer assistant, who also suffered from a brain tumour, died in February 2008 and in 1984 a laboratory assistant died of cancer.

An independent inquiry into possible health risks at the Rutherford Building is being carried by an outside scientist, Professor David Coggon, at the request of officials at Manchester University, and is expected to report later this year.

He is examining claims that the deaths are linked to contamination in the building, which was used by Lord Rutherford between 1907 and 1919.

University of Manchester
The university asked an expert to investigate in September 2008

The university says the levels of exposure have not been large enough to damage the health of occupants. But Professor Coggan says he want to check whether "this conclusion is valid".

The radioactivity was first uncovered in 1999, 80 years after Rutherford had left, and de-contamination work was subsequently carried out. The mercury was found more recently.

Manchester University declined to comment on Professor Whiston's death, pending the result of the Coggan investigation.

Deaths 'unusual'

An inquest is still to be held into the death last September of his former colleague Arthur Reader at the age of 69, who had worked in the same contaminated laboratory.

Reader also suffered from pancreatic cancer as did another psychologist Hugh Wagner, who had occupied a different room used by Lord Rutherford, and died in 2007 at the age of 62.

Had he lived he would have made many more contributions
Professor Gordon Mackerron

In a letter to staff in March, Professor Coggan wrote that the clusters of deaths was "unusual".

But he added: "Pancreatic cancer is not thought to be caused by mercury, and is not one of the cancers most likely to be caused by ionising radiation. Nor are there other known or suspected causes of pancreatic cancer that could account for this cluster.

"The occurrence of these may therefore be a chance coincidence, but the inquiry will consider possible explanations in more detail."

Professor Whiston had recently retired from Sussex University, where he developed the first automated Braille machine. After being diagnosed with cancer last autumn, he had been trying to finish three books.

A colleague, Professor Gordon Mackerron, said he did not know if he had managed to complete the works.

"In past few weeks he was extremely tired, but still very lucid, very robust. It is a very substantial loss, all the worse because it was so sudden. Had he lived he would have made many more contributions", he said.

Print Sponsor

University radiation probe begins
30 Sep 08 |  Manchester
Coroner to probe radiation link
24 Sep 08 |  Manchester

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific