Professor and Inventor Theodore Litovitz

Research by Theodore A. Litovitz, 82, a Catholic University physics professor, led to advances in fiber optics and electromagnetics.
Research by Theodore A. Litovitz, 82, a Catholic University physics professor, led to advances in fiber optics and electromagnetics. (Family Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 6, 2006

Theodore A. Litovitz, 82, a Catholic University physics professor and prolific inventor who discovered a way to store nuclear waste more safely, created an electronic chip to shield cellphone users from harmful electromagnetic radiation and developed some of the early fiber optics now used for telecommunications, died of complications of kidney cancer May 1 at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis.

Dr. Litovitz held 25 patents, and from those inventions several businesses were born. He co-founded Catholic University's Vitreous State Laboratory, where hundreds of students learned the basics of working with materials in a glasslike, amorphous solid state.

One of the companies he co-founded, now known as Duratek Inc. in Columbia, arose out of his research at the laboratory. Dr. Litovitz, with Pedro B. Macedo, discovered how to immobilize radioactive waste by making it part of a durable glasslike solid in a process called vitrification. The process, which Duratek sells, is expected to save 20 years and $20 billion in cleanup costs at the government's Hanford Nuclear Reservation alone.

He was known among his colleagues as "a force of nature" for his relentless but engaging interest in people and ideas. A lover of coffee breaks, he used the time to talk about the potential applications of basic research to problems that popped up in the media.

"He was one of those people who always wanted to learn," said his daughter, Toby Litovitz of Potomac. "He was on a cruise in Alaska, and for something to read, picked up a high school biology book. He came back with an idea that turned out to be seminal in the field, how electromagnetics worked in a cell."

His interest in physics was triggered as a Navy radar repair technician during World War II, and although he was educated in the field of acoustics, his intellectual curiosity led him into fiber optics, glasses and electromagnetics.

"His science was very much grounded in the topics of the time," said Joanne Smith-Farrell, an executive at Gene Logic Inc., who was his last doctoral student and often found herself under questioning about the interests of her generation. "His inspiration came from living and experiencing the world."

His most recent work centered on the effects of electromagnetic radiation on organisms. The field had been characterized by controversy and inconclusive findings when Dr. Litovitz noticed a Swedish researcher's tantalizing report of increased incidences of brain cancer in people who used cellphones for more than 2,000 hours. The cancer also seemed to occur on the side of the face where the phone was held.

Dr. Litovitz began experimenting with eggs, said Macedo, who is director of the Catholic University lab. He discovered that the type of electromagnetic radiation emitted from cellphones or power lines can cause biological changes at the cellular level. That radiation, he found, could be masked by superimposing electrical white noise. So he developed and patented an electronic chip that could be attached to cellphones and override the radiation.

His research, published in the Journal of Cellular Biology in 2002, caused a stir among cellphone users torn between the emerging science and reassurances from phone companies. Dr. Litovitz, however, did not hesitate to stake out a position.

"These findings have important implications with regards to potential health effects from prolonged or repeated exposure to mobile-phone radiation,'' he told a trade journal, RCR Wireless News. "Because stress proteins are involved in the progression of a number of diseases, heavy daily cell-phone usage could lead to great incidence of disorders such as Alzheimer's and cancer.''

At a 1993 scientific meeting, he was asked to explain why he persisted in a field where so many others had failed.

"It was just youthful exuberance," he quipped. "I was only 66 at the time. Now that I'm 70 and mature, I might not have tried it."

The New York native moved to Washington at the age of 2 and grew up in an apartment above his parents' grocery store at Third and O streets NW. He graduated from the old Central High School and attended George Washington University until his studies were interrupted by World War II.

After returning from the South Pacific, he graduated from Catholic University, where in 1950 he also received a doctoral degree in physics. He immediately began working at the university and soon co-wrote a standard reference book, "Absorption and Dispersion of Ultrasonic Waves" (1959), with his mentor, physicist Karl Herzfeld.

Under contract to the government during the Vietnam War, Dr. Litovitz and Macedo built an infrared transmitting window used in a U-2 spy plane. In the 1970s, in competition with giant Corning Glass Co., the pair developed a cheap glass fiber intended to replace copper wire, a giant leap to the fiber optics revolution.

Dr. Litovitz published more than 130 scientific research papers, and after 48 years, when he retired from teaching in 1998, he said, "I hope no one will think I can't stick to a job." He continued to work as a researcher until his death. He also was helping to found another biotechnology company.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 59 years, Charlotte Litovitz of Annapolis; a son, Gary Litovitz of McLean; and four grandchildren.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company