2003 Science, Technology and Environment

Bert Coursey

Developed a process to eliminate the deadly threat of anthrax carried in U.S. mail in response to the 2001 anthrax attacks.

It can be difficult to remember how much the anthrax attacks frightened America. But in October of 2001, just weeks after the September 11 attacks, when the lethal white powder turned up in mailboxes in Washington, DC and other cities, it caused panic. Americans were introduced to the deadly potential of anthrax. The federal government turned to agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, medical professionals and biological weapons experts to keep the nation safe. One of the experts was Dr. Bert Coursey of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

In late October 2001, the White House contacted Coursey, along with other federal scientists and engineers from NIST, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Postal Service, to elicit their help in decontaminating mail and postal facilities that had been contaminated by anthrax spores. They were asked to develop a plan to sterilize the nearly two million pieces of mail that had been quarantined after being processed at contaminated post offices.

Having worked with a plant in Ohio to develop new ways to use electron beams to sterilize medical supplies, Coursey was an ideal candidate for the job. He was tasked with determining how much radiation was needed to irradiate a box of mail. He laid out a plan, did the research, developed guidelines and standards, and coordinated efforts to find the solution. As Dr. Katharine Gebbie, director of NIST’s physics laboratory and last year’s Career Achievement Medal winner, said, “He essentially coordinated the interagency effort to combat anthrax.” And, even now, that system is still irradiating mail for some high-risk Washington, DC ZIP Codes.

The system Coursey designed has essentially removed the threat posed by anthrax-contaminated mail. Americans can again open their mail without fear.

That is not the only life-saving innovation developed by Coursey during his 33-year federal career. He led a team of medical physicists in developing standards for radiation seeds now used in treatment of prostate cancer for 30,000 patients per year in the U.S. He also provided crucial leadership in improving the dose standards used for mammography. Small changes in exposure affect both the image quality and exposure to the patient. Thanks to Coursey, NIST now calibrates radiation from the 17 different types of mammography machines used in the U.S. These standards are disseminated to all 10,000 mammography facilities in the nation, insuring proper exposure of 30,000,000 mammograms per year.

In a moment of national crisis, Coursey was instrumental in ending the frightening possibility that terrorists could contaminate our mail with anthrax. Since then, Coursey has continued his vital work. In October 2002, thanks to his effectiveness as a team leader and mentor, he was asked to become Director of Standards in the Science and Technology directorate of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. His work in the federal government continues, and each of us is safer for it.