Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

E. Gail de Planque, Ph.D. (1945-2010)
MSA SC 3520-17118

Biography:

The Honorable Dr. E. Gail de Planque was one of the most notable nuclear physicists and energy policy makers in the United States, and a woman who broke many glass ceilings in the scientific fields. Her work focused on radiation, health, safety, and environmental impact, and her contributions in both the scientific and socio-political fields of nuclear energy have had both local and global impacts.1

Dr. de Planque was born in New Jersey in 1945, and was active up and down the East Coast most of her life. She eventually settled in Potomac, Maryland for nearly two decades in the later part of her life.2 She began her career in the nuclear energy field after earning her A.B. in mathematics from Immaculata College in 1967. Following this degree, she married Captain Frank Burke, Jr.3 She then began working in New York City as a physicist with the Radiation Physics Division of the Atomic Energy Commision--a descendant of the monumental Manhattan Project.4 As an entry-level physicist with this group, de Planque researched ways to measure radiation and create health standards for both the environment and for nuclear energy personnel. In her time with the Atomic Energy Commission, she published research papers such as, “Thermoluminescence Dosimetry: Environmental Monitoring Near Nuclear Reactor Sites.” Dr. de Planque saw the Radiation Physics Division through its absorption into the now U.S. Department of Energy in 1977, where it was renamed as the Environmental Measurements Lab (EML). The discoveries and developments that de Planque contributed to while she was with the EML have defined the field of nuclear energy, and have set global standards for measuring radiation and ensuring the safe use of nuclear energy.

Dr. de Planque defied those who doubted that she could continue her advancement in the field after her marriage by continuing her studies and gaining higher-level positions with the EML.5 She earned a M.S. in physics from the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 1973, writing a thesis titled “Radiation Induced Breast Cancer from Mammography”; ironic, as she was later a breast cancer survivor.6 In 1983, she would earn her PhD in environmental health sciences from New York University. While working toward her PhD and for several years after, Dr. de Planque became the Deputy Director of the EML--her first major step into notoriety. While she was in this high-level position, Dr. de Planque managed the laboratory and her fellow scientists, continued her research, published her work, and created an important international network of colleagues and friends in the nuclear energy community.7 Dr. de Planque climbed the ladder at the EML and would become the director of the laboratory in 1987, as well as a recognized expert on environmental radiation measurements.8

For four years Dr. de Planque led the EML at a time encapsulated by the many nuclear crises of the era that had been induced by the Cold War, the earlier Three Mile Island disaster, and later converged in the Chernobyl disaster. The Chernobyl incident occurred in 1989 during Dr. de Planque’s tenure as Director at the EML, and as she was quickly becoming an internationally renowned scientist and delegate of nuclear energy, Dr. de Planque visited the Chernobyl site. She remembered this visit as a moment of immense sadness; in a speech she remarked, “I was the first non-Soviet woman to be there, but even more compelling was walking through the ghost town of Pripyat…  that housed the workers and their families. One could almost hear the voices of children at play.”9 In the late 20th century, events like Chernobyl were a crucible for the health and safety element of the ever-growing  nuclear energy enterprise, and Dr. de Planque quickly became a prominent researcher and policy maker.

While Director of the EML, Dr. de Planque was also active in the American Nuclear Society (ANS), an international organization that advances the science and engineering of nuclear energy. She constantly maintained at least one leadership position in ANS from 1974 to 1991, which would eventually culminate in her presidency from 1988 to 1989.10 Remembering her as a great colleague, mentor, and leader, fellow nuclear engineer Dr. Gail Marcus noted that, “Gail… preceded me in the ANS hierarchy, and helped me immensely in learning my way through it. Sometimes, one cannot be sure of which seemingly unimportant decisions or actions profoundly influence the course of one's career or life, but I am convinced that, more than once, Gail was behind an action that probably strongly influenced my career.11 Dr. de Planque’s trajectory was not only significant in terms of the growth of the nuclear energy communities, but it was also incredibly important for other women in the science and technology fields.

In 1991 Dr. de Planque continued her rise in the scientific and socio-political arena when she was appointed the commissioner of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (U.S. NRC), a national agency that protects the health and safety of the nation by overseeing nuclear energy projects of both public and private organizations. As the commissioner of the U.S. NRC, de Planque was solidified as a national and international leader in the nuclear community. She spearheaded development and implemented regulation for safe use of nuclear energy on U.S. soil, and she also acted as a diplomat of the U.S. in international matters. For example, she helped draft and sign the agreement of cooperation between the American Nuclear Society and the newly formed Soviet Nuclear Society only a few years after the Cold War had ended.12 Having attained several high-level positions and growing her extensive international network, Dr. de Planque became a delegate of the global nuclear community. She collaborated on many committees in the U.S., Europe, and in various other nations to ensure the peaceful  and responsible use of nuclear energy.13

After her term with the NRC ended in 1995, Dr. de Planque continued to work on matters of energy and policy in the private sector. She served as President of Strategy Matters, Inc., Director for Energy Strategists Consultancy, Ltd. and served on the boards of Northeast Utilities Corporation, British Nuclear Fuels, EnergySolutions, Inc., Landauer, Inc., TXU Corporation, and BHP Billiton.14

Despite her move into the private sector, Dr. de Planque was continually pursued by international organizations who requested her leadership and expertise.15 She was notably asked by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to chair a high-level advisory committee to oversee an environmental assessment of the former French nuclear test sites in Mururoa and Fangataufa in the South Pacific. Dr. de Planque would agree to lead what would become an enormous two-year study involving 55 experts from 21 countries. This incredibly large and complex study was deemed an outstanding success in the scientific community. Greenpeace International even stated that it could serve as a model for other environmental assessments.16

In 2003, Dr. de Planque’s immense contributions to the nuclear energy community and the world were honored when she received the Henry DeWolf Smyth Nuclear Statesman Award from the American Nuclear Society and the Nuclear Energy Institute. This award recognizes outstanding and statesmanlike contributions to the nuclear enterprise, which are exhibited through international stature and work directing the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In the 43 years of this award’s existence, Dr. de Planque is the only woman to have received it.17

Throught her career, Dr. de Planque was not only a representative of the nuclear energy policy-making community, but also an active scientist in the field. She researched, wrote, and published over 65 journal articles, proceedings and technical reports. She also became a leading editor and reviewer for many publications including Health Physics, Radiation Protection Dosimetry, Nuclear Tehnology, as well as the Department of Energy’s technical publications.18

As a global leader in nuclear energy, Dr. de Planque  represented an enormous leap for women in science and technology, and was inducted into Women in Technology International’s (WITI) Hall of Fame in 2004. In her acceptance speech, she emphasized how her life as one of the first female leaders in the nuclear energy community was littered with a series of admirable, albeit lonely, firsts: “There have been moments of loneliness, like being the only woman in my group when I was hired to do research and radiation physics for the Atomic Energy Commission; the only women in my grad school physics and engineering classes; the first female director of my laboratory; the first female president of my 98% male professional society, the American Nuclear Society; the first woman commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and now, the only female member of four of the five corporate boards on which I serve.”19 In this acceptance speech, she also quoted one of the only other groundbreaking women of nuclear energy, Marie Curie, and said, “Marie Curie, one of the very few role models in the nuclear field said, 'I was taught that the way of progress is neither swift nor easy.' I think that she would be disappointed to know that there are still barriers and obstacles for women, especially in the fields of science, technology, and engineering. But as one of those who has gone down that path, I must say that, in spite of the obstacles, it has been a rewarding and exciting journey. My generation has pushed that glass ceiling a little higher, but the prize is still up there. The day when one woman’s success is not unique  and her failures do not represent all women, we will have succeeded. When… we can each stand on our own merit and no goal is beyond our reach [we will have succeeded].”20

Dr. de Planque not only represented women who achieved in underrepresented fields, but also actively worked to uplift women in the science and technology fields. While at the NRC, she notably dealt with matters relating to equal employment opportunities, flexiplace and flexitime, sexual harassment policy, and management.21 Additionally, as a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), Dr. de Planque played a key role in recognizing of the importance of diversity in engineering, which led to the establishment of the NAE's Diversity Forum.22 With the NAE, she was also elected to chair planning committees aimed at encouraging women to become engineers, organized a conference celebrating women in engineering, and established an educational outreach website called “EngineerGirl.”23 Dr. de Planque also co-authored an editorial on the status of women in engineering that called for more energy to be focused on relieving the gender gap in this predominantly male field.24. The American Nuclear Society recently established the E. Gail de Planque National Award which honors the exemplary accomplishments of a woman in the fields of nuclear science and engineering.25 As a female leader in the science and technology world, Dr. de Planque provided important representation of a shift in gender roles; however her work to increase diversity in the science world did not end there. Rather, as we see above, Dr. de Planque was also actively engaged in multi-faceted efforts to increase the presence of women in the underrepresented fields in which she felt immense passion.

On a more personal level, Dr. de Planque is remembered as an “entertaining conversationalist” who had an “elegant presence,” a woman with a penchant for fine food and wine, and an empathetic and encouraging ear for the few fellow women in the scientific fields who needed support.26 It is all of these qualities coupled with the incredible innovation and charismatic leadership in the global nuclear energy community, that make her a perfect addition to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.


Endnotes:

  1. “Gail de Planque passes on,” Pacific Nuclear Council, accessed 27 May 2015, http://pacificnuclear.net/pnc/Gail-de-Planque.html. Return to text.

  2. Dr. E. Gail de Planque’s Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame Nomination Packet. Return to text.

  3. "Nuptials in Jersey for Gail De Planque." New York Times (1923-Current File), 10 November 1968. ProQuest (ISSN: 03624331). Return to text.

  4. “History of the Environmental Measurements Laboratory,” Environmental Measurements Laborator, accessed 27 May 2015, http://www.wipp.energy.gov/NAMP/EMLLegacy/history.html. Return to text.

  5. Nomination packet. Return to text.

  6. Ibid. Return to text.

  7. Joel Lubenau, “In Memoriam: E. Gail de Planque,” Health Physics Society, last modified 5 October 2014, accessed 27 May 2015, http://hps.org/aboutthesociety/people/inmemoriam/EGaildePlanque.html. Return to text.

  8. Ibid. Return to text.

  9. E. Gail de Planque, “WITI Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech,” speech presented at WITI Hall of Fame Award Ceremony, 2004, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOjR1AAnDXA.Return to text.

  10. Nomination packet. Return to text.

  11. Gail Marcus, “E. Gail de Planque: In Memoriam,” Nuke Power Talk (blog), 20 September 2010, accessed 27 May 2015, http://nukepowertalk.blogspot.com/2010/09/e-gail-de-planque.html. Return to text.

  12. de Planque, “WITI Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech.” Return to text.

  13. Nomination packet. Return to text.

  14. “WITI Hall of Fame Profiles: Dr. Gail De Planque, 2004, ” Women in Technology International (WITI), accessed 27 May 2015, http://www.witi.com/center/witimuseum/halloffame/189101/Ph.D.,-Dr.-Gail-De-Planque-President,-Strategy-Matters,-Inc.-and-Director-Energy-Strategists-Consultancy,-Ltd./. Return to text.

  15. Nomination packet. Return to text.

  16. Lubenau, “In Memoriam: E. Gail de Planque.” Return to text.

  17. “Henry DeWolf Smyth Nuclear Statesman Award (NEI),” American Nuclear Society, accessed 28 May 2015, http://www.ans.org/honors/va-smyth. Return to text.

  18. Nomination packet. Return to text.

  19. de Planque, “WITI Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech.” Return to text.

  20. Ibid. Return to text.

  21. Nomination packet. Return to text.

  22. “WITI Hall of Fame Profiles: Dr. Gail De Planque, 2004.” Return to text.

  23. Tiffany Wayne, “De Planque, E. Gail,” in American Women of Science Since 1900: Essays A-H. Vol.1, (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 341-342, https://books.google.com/books?id=gPGZJ_YuMwgC&q=gail+de+planque#v=snippet&q=gail%20de%20planque&f=false. Return to text.

  24. William Wulf and E. Gail de Planque, “Women in Engineering,” The Bridge 29, no. 2 (1999): 2, https://www.nae.edu/Publications/Bridge/WomeninEngineering7332/WomeninEngineeringeditorial.aspx#about_author7457. Return to text.

  25. “E. Gail de Planque National Award,” American Nuclear Society, accessed 27 May 2015, http://www.ans.org/honors/va-planque. Return to text.

  26. “Gail de Planque passes on.” Return to text.

Biography written by 2015 summer intern Amelia Meman.

Return to Dr. E. Gail de Planque's Introductory Page
 


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