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Peace advocate Ruth Salzman Adams dies at 81

Ruth Salzman Adams, an arms-control activist and a former longtime editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who devoted most of her life to ensuring that a broad array of scientists and scholars focused on solutions for world peace, died Feb. 25 of cancer at her San Diego home. She was 81.

Adams was known in international peace circles as the keen mind behind projects as diverse as an insect physiology research institute in Africa and a grant program that sponsored scholars posing alternatives to Cold War orthodoxies.

What often motivated her were the connections she saw between such seemingly unrelated efforts. She recognized, for instance, that world harmony might hinge as much on an entomology research center on a continent plagued by insect-borne disease as it might on overt disarmament efforts.

“She was very interested in nuclear weapons, but also understood that the issues of poverty and development in Third World countries were as much a part of people’s sense of security … or insecurity as nuclear weapons are in the developed world,” said Kennette Benedict, who succeeded Adams as director of the international peace and security program of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago.

Adams was an early participant in the Pugwash peace movement, which brought together American and Soviet scientists concerned about the nuclear threat. She was the only woman present in 1957 at the first Pugwash conference in Nova Scotia, which was prompted by a 1955 manifesto by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell.

“She was as knowledgeable as many of the Pugwash participants, even though she was not a scientist,” said Victor Rabinowitch, a friend of 50 years and chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “She really believed in the importance of scientists in political roles. She held that view until her death – that scientists had a unique responsibility to inform the public about the dangers of nuclear war.”

Adams was born in Los Angeles, the older of two children. She grew up in mining camps in Nevada because of her father, a mining engineer, who, she once told the Washington Post, “was always looking for a pot of gold and never found it.” He abandoned the family when she was quite young.

Adams enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1941 with thoughts of becoming a lawyer. She left the university the following year for a job as recreation director at an Oregon shipyard but was fired after she organized an interracial dance.

She returned to Minnesota and married her first husband, Mark Skinner, with whom she had two daughters. They were divorced in 1951, shortly after moving to Chicago.

Adams went to work in various staff positions at the University of Chicago, an important center of research for the Manhattan Project. She became acquainted with many of the scientists who had played a role in the birth of the atomic age and immersed herself in the debates over how to balance academic freedom against the exigencies of global security in the nuclear era. Such concerns fueled the debut in 1945 of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was founded by Manhattan Project scientists at the university and became famous for its doomsday clock gauging the imminence of nuclear disaster. Adams became a research assistant to Eugene Rabinowitch, the Bulletin’s first editor, in 1953. That same year she married Robert Adams, an archaeologist and future provost of the University of Chicago.

Four years later she attended the first Pugwash conference, which was attended by 22 eminent scientists from 10 nations, including Japan, China and what was then the Soviet Union.

Although she had no background in physics – she had studied law, philosophy and sociology – Adams held her own in that daunting group.

Adams eventually would serve two stints as editor of the Bulletin – from 1961 to 1968 and again from 1978 to 1983.

Along the way Adams made it a priority to engage younger generations in the mission of peace. She had a special attachment to the student Pugwash movement, and was a mentor to many women who became prominent in the peace and conflict resolution field.


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