Nuclear-Free Future

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12 October 2003

Inge Schmitz-Feuerhake

Journalists know the drill: in the midst of investigating an explosive story, something of potentially grave public concern, the chief source suddenly retracts every statement on the grounds that if quoted openly in the media, he or she could kiss their career good-bye. Not so Inge Schmitz-Feuerhake – with dogged idealism, this physicist and mathematician has never shrunk from publishing and speaking out on behalf of the truth, the lucrative perks of climbing the university career ladder be damned.

Born in Osnabrück, Germany on Sept. 28, 1935, Inge Schmitz-Feuerhake has long focused her research upon assessing the biological effects of ionizing radiation at low dosage levels. Initially welcomed at the University of Bremen, she was appointed professor for the specialist areas of radiation dosimetry, radiation risk, and experimental physics. But after a few years, both the university administration and faculty began to disapprove of her ideas; they claimed that Inge Schmitz-Feuerhake was not practicing “true” physics, and that her activities tarnished the university’s image as well as severely handicapped efforts to raise funds.

Painfully and first-hand, Inge Schmitz-Feuerhake experienced how the mainstream scientific community can mob its own, those who refuse to “play the game.” She was persecuted with particular hostility when she came up with a brilliantly simple idea: she studied the attic dust in the houses in the Elbmarsch area. The fissile materials she found appeared in quantities that could not be explained away by Chernobyl or by fallout from nuclear testing during the sixties.

“The attic dust of these houses contains plutonium, and the nuclide signature and concentration betrays the Krümmel reactor as its source.”

“We have established conclusively, that the attic dust of these houses contains plutonium, and the nuclide signature and concentration betrays the Krümmel reactor as its source.”

Her research results led to a veritable witch-hunt, participated in by Bremen University faculty colleagues. She was ridiculed in the media, and her hypothesis that the findings might be linked to the extraordinarily high leukemia rate in the area was characterized as absurd. Later, a renowned laboratory at the University of Krakow confirmed the results of her analysis.

Inge Schmitz-Feuerhake has devoted her efforts not only to radiation victims. She has always worked as well on gathering and passing on her scientific findings on radiation risk and the effect of low-level radiation exposure. In this, she has taken great care to ensure that the debate not take place only in the ivory towers of the “pure” sciences, but rather at citizens’ gatherings as well. During the era of the Iron Curtain, Inge Schmitz-Feuerhake’s consulting and support played an important role in the establishment of the environmental movement in East Germany. Her writings strive to actually impart knowledge, rather than simply to enhance her list of publications. Written in comprehensible language, they can be read and understood by colleagues from related disciplines and even interested laypeople. This year Dr. Schmitz-Feuerhake was elected Chair of the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR), a watchdog organization of scientists challenging mainstream weighting of such risk factors as low dosages of radiation.

Ingrid Schmitz-Feuerhake’s lifetime achievement cannot be summed up by her scientific accomplishment – she is and has always been much more, a shining example of how to withstand public ridicule and mockery – for the sake of science and for the sake of the truth. For all our sakes.

–Craig Reishus