William John O'Brien, a state public health specialist who discovered local jewelry contaminated with radioactive gold in the early 1980s, died under hospice care Wednesday in his home in Marilla. He was 84.
Born in Buffalo, the fifth of eight children, he was a 1941 graduate of South Park High School and took a leave of absence from his studies at Cornell University to join the Army during World War II.
Serving in the 740th AAA Gun Battalion, he took part in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded the Belgian Fourragere for his participation in the defense of Antwerp. Returing from service, he graduated from Cornell in 1948 with a degree in entomology.
He spent his 43-year career in public service with the Erie County Health Department, the state Labor Department and the state Health Department, where he served for 27 years as a radiation control specialist.
Mr. O'Brien made news in the 1980s when he discovered radioactivity in gold rings, which caused several deaths. He also was one of the first to investigate radon contamination in school buildings and commercial structures.
After retiring in 1989, he continued to work until earlier this year as a consultant, inspecting medical x-ray units and designing shielding, while donating his salary to charity. He taught a class in radiation safety for firefighters at Erie Community College for several years and was an instructor for WNY Civil Defense.
He was an athlete as a young man, taking part in varsity baseball and track, junior varsity football and boxing at Cornell. He continued to play Muni league baseball into the 1950s, then served for 40 years as an umpire. He won several gold medals in track and field events at the New York State Senior Olympics.
A longtime member of the Marilla Volunteer Fire Department, he served as chairman of the Marilla Zoning Board of Appeals. He was a voracious reader and enjoyed crossword puzzles and writing letters. He also was a 25-gallon American Red Cross blood donor.
Surviving are his wife of 57 years, the former Patricia Hayes; five sons, Daniel, Timothy, Michael, William and Joseph; and two sisters, Eleanor Buchanan and Edna Gehrman.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today in St. Catharine of Siena Catholic Church, 4928 Seneca St., West Seneca.