Walter Koltun; helped develop atomic models, was MIT fund-raiser

By Emma Stickgold
Globe Correspondent / May 3, 2010

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He was told not to look inside the black box he picked up in Korea in the 1950s. But when Dr. Walter Lang Koltun delivered it to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the young scientist and Army first lieutenant asked whether he could learn its contents now that it was on US soil.

It was the brain, he was told, of a Japanese sailor who had survived the atomic bombs dropped in his country, his sons, John and Joseph, recalled him saying.

His curiosity did not stop there, and his excitement grew as he worked with other doctors to delve into the innermost parts of the brain and study the effects of radiation on the brain about a decade after the bombs hit.

Dr. Koltun, who later worked with renowned scientist Linus Pauling on the development of atomic models, died March 14 at the home of his son Joseph in Woburn, from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 81.

Dr. Koltun was born in Brooklyn, where he graduated from Samuel J. Tilden High School. He attended New York University for a year before moving to Cambridge to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1948 at age 20 and a doctorate in biochemistry four years later.

During the Korean War, he served stateside at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, studying hemorrhagic fever, making just the one trip to Korea. He later taught biochemistry at the University of Virginia and Cornell University in upstate New York.

In 1959, he moved west to work at the University of California, Berkeley, as a consultant for the National Institutes of Health. While there, he joined Pauling and his associate Robert Corey, who were developing three-dimensional space-filling atomic models. They were called CPK models, using the initials of Corey, Pauling, and Dr. Koltun, who received a patent for them in 1965.

He met Janet Ferris, a writer from the Seattle area, through a mutual friend while attending a conference in San Francisco, and the two were married in 1962.

They moved to Washington, D.C., when he became a program director at the National Science Foundation in the mid-1960s and then a few years later moved to Massachusetts and settled in Boston’s Back Bay.

Dr. Koltun held a few administrative jobs at MIT before the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences Technology program hired him in 1970 as a fund-raiser, a job that required crisscrossing the country, seeking funds from donors.

“He was very good at what he did,’’ Joseph Koltun said. “He was very good with people. He had this way of making you feel very comfortable.’’

Joseph Yamron, a longtime friend, said Dr. Koltun’s passion for the program came across to potential donors.

“Walter was a very charming guy,’’ Yamron said.

In 1974, he became president of the Back Bay Neighborhood Association, a post he held for four years.

He helped the neighborhood association bring gaslights to Commonwealth Avenue and construct the park at Commonwealth Avenue and Clarendon Street. Both were part of the urban renewal that swept into the Back Bay area in the 1970s. The lights were installed to enhance the aesthetics of the neighborhood, and to address concern about the safety of residents — particularly of women — by improving the dim lighting, his sons said.

“He was a very calm, good leader,’’ said Susan Prindle, a former president of the association. “He kept the radicals under control. He was able to get an awful lot done and still hold a job at the same time.’’

He also was president of the Boston Center for Adult Education in the mid-1980s, overseeing the continuing-education program that offered hundreds of courses to its students.

He and his wife moved to Brookline in 1979. They divorced in 1989.

After officially retiring from MIT in the mid-1990s, he turned his Brookline garage into a studio and created a series of paintings that became part of an exhibit, “The Color of Light,’’ which played with the light spectrum and was featured at a West Roxbury library.

His illness progressed last fall, and in November, he moved from Brookline to his son’s home in Woburn.

“My father was a very smart man; it was unfortunate that at the end of his life he really had a tough time’’ with Parkinson’s, said his son John, of West Roxbury.

However, he continued to do fund-raising for MIT, relying on his ability to connect with people as he had through the years.

“I think he was always able to clarify things, and he had a good manner in working with people to get things done,’’ longtime family friend Elinor Olken of Cambridge said.

Her husband, Neil, added, “He had two qualities that stand out: First, he had very good judgment, and the second was — and this is, I think, a characteristic of all leaders — rather than pushing people to get things done, he got himself out in front of the problem.’’

Yamron said that some thought Dr. Koltun would make a good candidate for political office.

“He thought about that for a while, and decided he didn’t want to do it,’’ he said. “He was very effective, and he got a lot of stuff done. He was well known in the Boston area. But his first calling was science, and he wasn’t going to give that up.’’

In addition to his sons and former wife, now of Seattle, Dr. Koltun leaves a grandson and a granddaughter.

Services have been held.