When scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health still smoked in their laboratories in the early 1960s, physiology researcher Vilma Rose Hunt was studying radioactive elements and tested a colleague’s cigarette butts on a whim.
That first experiment led Dr. Hunt, an Australian-born mother of four who was on a Radcliffe fellowship for homemakers returning to the workforce, to conduct further tests with co-researcher Edward P. Radford Jr.
They found that over a lifetime, smokers exposed themselves to considerably more radioactivity from polonium-210 than nonsmokers. Their findings helped further establish the links between smoking and lung cancer at a time when a prominent report by the US surgeon general had warned about the health risks smokers faced.
Dr. Hunt, a pioneer in studying workplace environmental hazards for women and an Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the Carter administration, died Dec. 29 in her Gloucester home of complications of a stroke and brain seizures. She was 86.
At 5-foot-2-inches tall with a long braid down her back, Dr. Hunt was “this huge package in a tiny body,” said Lois M. Gibbs, who was a homeowner in Love Canal learning about ground-water contamination when she met Dr. Hunt in 1980.
Then a deputy assistant administrator at the EPA, Dr. Hunt met with frightened residents of the Niagara Falls, N.Y., neighborhood. She translated the results of chromosome studies for the residents and explained about the buried chemical waste they had learned was seeping into their basements.
Love Canal became one of the nation’s most notorious environmental disaster sites.
“She gave us the thumbs up, you know: ‘Keep going, keep raising hell.’ She spoke in plain English,” said Gibbs, who is now executive director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, a nonprofit based just outside Washington, D.C., that provides technical and organizing assistance to community environmental groups. Dr. Hunt served on the organization’s board for many years.
“She didn’t have any answers — nobody did at the time — but she got it,” Gibbs said.
One of two daughters, Dr. Hunt was born in Sydney, and her electrician father treated her like the son he never had, according to her family. She served sausages and potatoes to US soldiers in Australia during World War II and enlisted in the women’s auxiliary of the Royal Australian Air Force, where she learned to repair radar devices.
In 1950, she graduated from the University of Sydney with a degree in dental surgery. Borrowing money from her sister, she bought a ticket to New Zealand, where she set up a private practice with another female dentist and worked for the government’s health department as a junior dental officer. She and her dental partner were awarded scholarships to Harvard for further dental training.
At Harvard, she met Edward Eyre Hunt Jr., an anthropology professor, and they married in 1952. She graduated from Harvard in 1958 with a master’s in anthropology.
During the 1950s, the Hunts bought a large house in Gloucester, and in 1985 they retired there to live with extended family.
In retirement, Dr. Hunt was active in local government, working to transform a former landfill into a park in the city’s Magnolia neighborhood and serving as curator of the Magnolia Historical Society.
Edward Hunt died in 1991. For many years after that, Vilma Hunt worked on a book, which she did not finish, about the history of uranium, at times assisted by a Harvard student working through the university’s externship program.
The Hunts had four children, including Margaret, a professor who chairs the women’s and gender studies department at Amherst College and who described her mother as fearless.
In 1968, Dr. Hunt was interested in the history of uranium mining in what was then the Soviet Union when she decided to go there, taking along her son, William, and Margaret, who was 12. They traveled the country in a Volkswagen van and at one point were rescued from a muddy ditch by villagers.
“We had a great time,” Margaret said. “She had a very positive notion of the kindness of strangers all over the world. She always presumed things were going to be OK wherever she went, and they were.”
Dr. Hunt and her husband opted not to own a television when their children were growing up.
Margaret also noted that “cigarettes were banned from the house long before they were banned in other places.”
Active in the feminist movement, Dr. Hunt was a pioneer in understanding the harm women’s reproductive health could face at work. She wrote an influential 121-page report for the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1975 and later wrote about workplace hazards to male fertility.
In 1976, Dr. John Finklea, then director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, told The New York Times: “I’m not much for quoting the Bible, but Vilma’s report for me was a bit like when St. Paul was on the road to Damascus and the scales fell from his eyes.”
Her friend Jeanne Mager Stellman, a professor of clinical public health at Columbia University, called Dr. Hunt “a completely extraordinary woman.” They attended conferences together and sometimes collaborated on workplace issues.
“We were engaged in a huge fight because that was the time women were being banned from the workplace,” Stellman said.
She said the National Institutes of Health rejected a grant proposal that she and Dr. Hunt submitted in the late 1970s to study whether menstrual fluid could provide clues to toxic exposure. Stellman recalled that some members of the panel reviewing the proposal ridiculed their plans and doubted that women would cooperate with the collection of specimens.
“You can imagine the sexism we were up against,” Stellman said.
In addition to her daughter Margaret, who lives in Amherst, and her son, William, who lives in Gloucester, Dr. Hunt leaves two other daughters, Louise Rounds of Portland, Conn., and Catherine of Gloucester; a foster daughter, Martine Lebret of Boston; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in Gloucester City Hall.
Dr. Hunt also taught at Yale University and at Pennsylvania State University during her career.
Margaret Quinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s School of Health and Environment, worked with Dr. Hunt at Penn State in the late 1970s, and together they toured factories, fields, and toxic waste sites while researching occupational health hazards that pregnant women face.
In an e-mail, Quinn called Dr. Hunt a key role model who encouraged young women to choose science careers.
“Until Hunt’s research, most studies of the health of working people excluded women,” Quinn wrote. “Additionally, Hunt set her research findings about workplace hazards in a broad, inclusive social context, calling for solutions that made the workplace safe for men and for women.”