Remembering Professor James Curren Warf (1917-2008)
PSR-LA was saddened by the loss of Dr. James Curren Warf, who passed away November 7, 2008. Below is a tribute to Dr. Warf written by his son, PSR-LA Board President Curren Warf M.D.
My father, James Curren Warf, Professor Emeritus of chemistry and enduring peace activist, died November 7, 2008. He was 91 years old.
Born in a small town in the hills of Tennessee, and growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the era of segregation, he carried a lifelong rejection of racism. His mother was a public school teacher and his father a fire marshall and arson investigator. He married my mother, Lee Lola Walker in Tulsa, whom he met in an undergraduate psychology class. They had three children: my sister Sandy (1945), me (1949) and my brother Barney (1956).
My father was a scientist on the Manhattan Project during World War II, a Guggenheim Fellow in Geneva after the war, and then a lifelong peace activist. He held patents for the process of separating plutonium from high-level nuclear waste, founded and was a lifetime member of the Federation of American Scientists, and worked indefatigably to ban the bomb. For years, he traveled widely to lecture on nuclear disarmament, testified before congressional hearings, and served on independent review panels that surveyed safety and storage methods at nuclear power plants.
As a youth he became politicized during the Spanish Civil War and after World War II he was proud of being called a “premature anti-fascist” by the right wing. I remember his tears at the death of Albert Einstein and the palpable fear during the McCarthy era—he hid his left political books and Jewish friends asked if he would take their children if “it happened here.”
As a Professor of chemistry at USC for forty years, he authored a multitude of original research papers, many with a focus on rare earth metals—his specialty.
He spent a total of about 10 years teaching chemistry at medical schools in Indonesia and Brunei (including four years with me and my siblings as children in Djakarta and Surabaya) and wrote the first texts on inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry in Indonesian language. He was the faculty sponsor for USC’s small Students for A Democratic Society (SDS) chapter in the late 1960’s, proudly gaining notoriety on campus for putting up anti-war posters during the Indochina war. He was with me at many anti-war marches during the sixties and seventies, and always stayed with me during the ups and downs of those radical days.
He was an inspector at the nuclear weapons sites in Kazakhstan in the 80’s, and loudly sounded alarms about the effects of radiation after studying data collected from residents near the test sites, and from victims of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. He also worked on the Viking Probe to Mars at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Serving as a scientific resource and advisor for Committee to Bridge the Gap, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and other anti-nuclear proliferation organizations, we was relentless in his work. He wrote two editions (the last published in 2005) of All Things Nuclear (USC’s Figueroa Press), an excellent and unique book on nuclear energy, weapons, waste products, medical uses of radiation, etc. for the intelligent lay person. It’s been referred to as a “bible on the nuclear phenomenon.”
In February 2008, just months before his diagnosis of cancer of the spine, he co-wrote an article titled, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” published in the Monthly Review. It argued against building new nuclear plants to help offset global warming. He foresaw the enormous potential hazard to the earth and humanity, generating radioactive waste that lasts a near indefinite amount of time.
He spoke German, Indonesian, and Malay fluently enough to teach and write, and conversational Russian and French. He read science for Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic for 40 years. He loved opera, classical music and Russian folk songs and hated television.
I learned from him about loss and recovery, about humanism and human equality, about the historic urgency of peace, about the threat of fascism. I learned about curiosity and nature, about science and politics.
I learned about the marvelous variety of human cultures on our planet. I learned to love literature. I learned about love without reservation. I learned to question authority. I learned the importance of history and the incapacitation of fear. I learned about forgiveness and human imperfection.
As an ally of the historic civil rights movement, my father was a lifelong opponent of discrimination and would be thrilled that Americans have elected a progressive African American president and finally repudiated George Bush and Dick Cheney’s reactionary politics by a landslide. My father was an amazing and brilliant man and I loved him. He was with me at my birth, nurtured me as a child and I had the privilege of caring for him through his death. He died in the presence of his family, in dignity, and without suffering. •
Professor James Curren Warf’s children; Curren, Sandy, and Barney; and wife of 42 years, Kyoko Sato Warf, will hold a memorial for him on Saturday, December 13, from 2-4pm at the Vineyard Room in USC’s Davidson Conference Center (Jefferson and Figueroa, Parking Structure D).
You are welcome to attend.