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Retired UM professor Bert Pfeiffer dies
Bert Pfeiffer, shown here in 2002, was a longtime member of the Mo Club Convocation, a group of retired UM professors that meets weekly at the Missoula Club.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Bert Pfeiffer, a retired University of Montana professor, provocateur, social activist and internationally known scientist, died at his Missoula home Saturday.

Pfeiffer was 88 and suffered from a host of illnesses associated with aging, said his wife, Jean.

Despite poor health, which confined him to a wheelchair the past few years, Pfeiffer remained mentally sharp and full of humor, said Jesse Bier, Pfeiffer's longtime friend.

For decades, he was a permanent fixture of the Tuesday beer and burger crowd at the Missoula Club, where he gathered with his brethren, retired UM professors Mike Chessin, Merrel Clubb, Jim Cox, Arnold Silverman, Rich Fevold and Bier.

It was only fitting that the group - informally called the Mo Club Convocation - remembered their firebrand friend Tuesday, at their long-standing weekly appointment filled with lively repartee, burgers, beer and an afternoon game of pool.

Pfeiffer, they said, was courageous, intelligent, tenacious and larger than life.

Some of his gang said he was a communist to the end. Others argued he was an atheist. Said Chessin: "No, he was more agnostic - that's more scientific."

None argued that the zoologist who once rallied students to storm the campus ROTC building in protest of the Vietnam War relished the role as instigator.

Cox remembers a time in 1968, when on a trek across campus with then-UM wildlife professor Les Pengelly, talking about the uproar over Pfeiffer-inspired tensions and how the community believed the ROTC building was about to be burned to the ground.

"Les said, 'What are we going to do about this?' and I said, 'We're going to have to let the air out of Bert's bicycle tires,' because he was riding around the Oval stirring up trouble," Cox said.

"Bert liked that story, by the way," he said. "He did like to be considered as a nucleus of dissension."

Added Chessin: "But it was always for a good cause; causes were Bert's bread and butter."

When asked to name those causes, Pfeiffer's compatriots rolled their eyes, threw up their hands and sighed.

"We can't remember them all, it would take all day," Bier admonished.

Instead, the gang agreed to name a few and recall favorite Pfeiffer moments.

Pfeiffer, they said, was a zealot in his effort to warn the public about dangers associated with radioactive fallout from nuclear testing, long before the issue was on the radar of the larger science community.

He was labeled un-American and an alarmist when he started asking questions about nuclear fallout during the Cold War, his friends said.

Although public officials tried to silence his research about the widespread radiation hazards of atomic bomb tests that occurred in Nevada in the late 1950s, he and other like-minded scientists continued their anti-nuclear crusade in the 1960s and 1970s, and Pfeiffer conducted pioneering research of the environmental impacts of war.

In 1995, his research and his convictions were validated when secret government files on the Nevada tests were opened. The health and science community lauded Pfeiffer for pursuing the health hazards caused by nuclear fallout, despite government stonewalling.

When the news made headlines, Pfeiffer said he and his scientific colleagues felt justified for their unpopular, sometimes maligned efforts to disclose the hazards of radiation.

"People didn't want to believe the danger … but we knew," Pfeiffer said in a 1995 Missoulian interview.

"We were moved by a philosophy of the social responsibility of scientists," he said. "I still believe very strongly that it is the duty of scientists to inform the public about matters of science that affect people's lives. That's something I hope young scientists continue."

Over a beer in a Washington, D.C., bar, Pfeiffer and Chessin were told by a high-ranking government health official that the scientist's research, publications and public lectures were responsible for getting the U.S. Senate to pass the nuclear test ban treaty in 1963.

"He was often in the distinct minority, politically," Bier said. "And he was fearless.

"There are a lot of liberals out there, but not a lot who are outspoken and relentlessly so."

The quality oftentimes led to an uncomfortable alliance with co-workers, Fevold said.

Many academics in Pfeiffer's department felt he spent too much time on social causes.

Fevold was on the campus committee that approved merit raises for professors, and the previous year, Pfeiffer was not given a merit raise as punishment for his campus activism.

It was after the ROTC fiasco had died down that Fevold's committee decided to give Pfeiffer a significant merit raise.

"We wanted to give it to him, and we did," Fevold said, "but his department was outraged."

"Bert was willing to take punishment for things he believed in, and you could really put yourself in jeopardy back then," Bier said.

The gang recalled the time Pfeiffer stood up at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting and called for the association, considered the most authoritative and powerful group of scientists in the country, to censure the Vietnam War from an environmental degradation standpoint.

To sway the prestigious crowd, Pfeiffer discussed his research on Agent Orange and other scientific findings, and by the end of the meeting, he had prompted the group to pass his motion.

"He was a liberal voice in the old-fashion sense on a campus and at a time that was really quite conservative," Chessin said.

"He had the soul of a poet - a romantic Lord Byron type," said Clubb, who taught American Literature. "I told him that several times - he rolled with it, but he pooh-poohed poetry all the time."

Pfeiffer was an avid outdoorsman who hunted - quite successfully - anything that could be eaten. He was a strong, hearty man with a blue-blood background and an Ivy League education, of which he liked to remind people.

It was bearable because he had such a self-deprecating style, his friends said.

Frequent stories Pfeiffer liked to tell the Tuesday convocation were about his days at Cornell University, playing center for the football team.

"He always said he was proud to be pummeled by Sid Luckman, a quarterback from Columbia, who went on to play pro ball," Fevold said.

"Bert had a lot of fun playing pool, too," Bier said. "He was principally a blaster - he'd hit hard and hope something went in."

He used that same technique with a string of various UM presidents, who didn't take his advice about expanding academic summer programs to attract students from across the country.

"He was an academic visionary," Bier said. "He thought the university should play up its geographic and outdoor wonders and get the rest of the nation to come to UM and Montana for summer school," he said. "Bozeman - with its museum - stole our thunder in a lot of ways, and he never could get a president to buy on to the idea."

"He was full of grand ideas, good ideas."

"I will associate Bert with the great years of this university - he was a prime mover in the 1960s," Cox said. "And I don't think the university has been so important and so interesting since."

Pfeiffer is survived by Jean Pfeiffer, his wife of 55 years, and his three children, Eric, Anne and James.

As per Pfeiffer's request, there will be no funeral, but the family is considering an informal memorial service at a later date.

It will be, as Pfeiffer preferred, an event for storytelling and spicy debate.

"He was the kind of guy that, if you didn't feel like criticizing," Chessin said, "he'd start the ball rolling."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com

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