Betsy Sutherland, Brookhaven Lab biochemist, dies

Betsy Sutherland of Wading River, an eminent senior

Betsy Sutherland of Wading River, an eminent senior biochemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, died of brain cancer. Newsday's obituary for Betsy Sutherland
(Credit: Handout)

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Betsy Sutherland of Wading River, an eminent senior biochemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, died Oct. 7 of brain cancer. She was 65.

Sutherland, who came to Brookhaven in 1977, was best known for her groundbreaking research in how ultraviolet light and ionizing radiation can hurt human cells and how cells repair the damage.

"Her work on DNA damage is still very pertinent today, since skin cancer is becoming more prevalent and future space missions may send astronauts to outer regions in space where they may be exposed to damaging ionizing radiation," said John Dunn, acting chairman of Brookhaven's biology department.

For the past 15 years, she headed the biology department's user support team for the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven, the only source in the country of high energy, heavy charged particles used to assess the effects of space radiation.

In 1985, Sutherland was the first woman to be given the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award from the U.S. Department of Energy for her work in developing a way to study how cells with damaged DNA repair themselves. This year she was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Born in Manhattan and reared in Belton and Greenville, S.C., Sutherland became interested in science in high school when she attended a National Science Foundation summer camp, said her husband, John, a senior biophysicist at Brookhaven and a close collaborator with his wife on many projects.

They met on a blind date when she was getting her undergraduate and master's degrees in biology at Emory University in Atlanta and he was studying at the Georgia Institute of Technology, he said.

They married in 1965, and both went to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which had produced the uranium and plutonium used in the famed World War II Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. There she received her doctorate in radiation biology from the University of Tennessee. Her thesis was published in the prestigious journal Science.

"Ain't bad for a grad student," her husband said.

She then did postdoctoral work at Walter Reed Institute of Research and the University of California at Berkeley. From 1972 to 1977, she was a professor and researcher at the University of California at Irvine.

Her cancer was diagnosed about a year ago, but until July she continued to work between treatments, her husband said.

Sutherland was also an avid participant in field trials with her seven golden retrievers. Guy Fornuto of Smithtown, field director for the Long Island Golden Retriever Club, described her as "a scientist always," who approached things methodically. But, he said, "You could see she loved her dogs."

A funeral is to be held 2 p.m. Tuesday at Christ Episcopal Church in Greenville, S.C. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the York Place Children's Home, 234 Kings Mountain St., York, S.C. 29745.

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