Our History: 1924 to 1945

The Formation of the Physics Department

Duke University was established in 1924, when James B. Duke, an industrialist and philanthropist, gave a gift which would transform Trinity College into a new research-oriented university to be named Duke University, after its founder. Trinity College had been in existence since 1838, although in Durham only since 1892. President William P. Few and Dean William H. Wannamaker kept the titles and offices that they had had at Trinity College. Wannamaker now also held the title of Vice President. 

Wannamaker, along with Few, was responsible for faculty recruitment. They both valued the importance of undergraduate education and teaching. However, the opening of the Graduate School in 1926 made it crucial to appoint accomplished faculty members who could establish great research departments.      
In establishing the new Physics Department, Few and Wannamaker hired Charles W. Edwards, who had been a faculty member in Trinity College since 1898, to be the new chairman. Edwards did not have a Ph.D.; neither did he have experience with research nor with establishing a research department. This appointment turned out to be a critical mistake that would have serious reverberations for the Physics Department by the middle of the 1930’s. Other early faculty appointments went to Charles Hatley, hired in 1924, and who had taught at Trinity College since 1917; and to Walter M. Nielsen, hired in 1925, and who would have a productive research career. Robert Durden says that “Trouble began early….” Edwards had “deep misgivings about both Hatley and Nielsen” and tensions were high among Physics Department faculty. (Durden, p. 92)
In the early years, three additional faculty members were appointed: David W. Carpenter, who would receive a Ph.D. from Duke in 1933, was hired as an Instructor in 1929; Frank Woodbridge Constant, who studied magnetism and had received a Ph.D. from Yale, in 1930; James Carlyle Mouzon, with a Ph.D. from California Institute of Technology, in 1932, as Instructor.

Creating a Quality Research Program

Although the Duke family’s gift was large, it was not sufficient to create a high quality research university. The original endowment was small and suffered as a result of the depression of the 1930’s. However, at the same time, the Rockefeller Foundation funded an Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars, which assisted scholars fleeing from Nazi Germany by working together with universities in the United States to hire these scholars. Few felt that Duke was fortunate to participate in a program that made available distinguished scholars to staff this fledgling university. Initially, this committee paid all of the expenses of the scholars and no long term commitments were required of the universities. However, as the Nazis gained more power in Germany, the number of academic refugees grew so large that the Committee could only afford financial assistance for a three year period and agreements were changed so that the universities had to provide permanent funding for these scholars. Through this program Duke hired three German Jewish scientists: William Stern into the Psychology Department, Fritz London into the Chemistry Department, and Lothar Nordheim into the Physics Department. Hertha Sponer, who was not Jewish, wanted to emigrate from Germany because the Nazis refused to have women in university faculty positions. She was recruited by Duke and joined the Physics Department with the title of Professor in 1936. Although Fritz London was initially hired by the Chemistry Department, he was given a joint appointment to the Physics Department in the late 1940’s.

During these early years within the Physics Department, there were tensions among faculty members, most having to do with the administration of the department and the development of a dynamic research program. By the mid-1930’s Few and Wannamaker became personally active in attracting great scientists whose presence would make the transition from a “no man’s land” (in Wannamaker’s own words) to a department that would produce scientific research results (Durden). In 1936, Few named a committee whose members were Wannamaker, Nielsen and Hatley to supervise the department and prepare its budget. In 1937, Nielsen became the new Chair, replacing Charles Edwards.

Under Nielsen’s leadership, and with the arrivals of Sponer and Nordheim, the Physics Department was developing in both experimental and theoretical physics. Nielsen was an experimental nuclear physicist; Nordheim, a theoretical nuclear physicist; and Sponsor, whose field was experimental spectroscopy. An item of great importance to Chairman Nielsen was the development of a departmental instrument workshop, led by George Newton, which was a unique facility on the Duke campus and was often engaged with projects for other departments. Nielsen made always sure to include the shop workers in departmental functions and celebrations, and made it quite clear how much he valued their work. This machine shop developed further after Mr. Newton's retirement in 1945, under the new leadership of Milton Whitfield who retired after an effective leadership in 1968.    

World War II interfered with the progress that the Department was making. Many physicists from around the country left their departments to work on war time weapons. Lothar Nordheim was one Duke faculty member who played an important role as a nuclear physicist at the Oak Ridge Laboratories during the war. Harold Lewis, who was a graduate student, left Duke and joined the Naval Ordnance Laboratory as an expert on magnetic fields and mine detection. From 1942 to 1945, Frank W. Constant was the director of Duke’s Division of Physical War Research. Both Nordheim and Lewis returned to Duke after the war to continue their work.

Early Graduate Degrees 

We know of 49 students who received graduate degrees during this period. Twenty four of these received Ph.D. degrees. Thirty-seven students received Master of Arts degrees, and of these, 12 also received Ph.Ds.  All of the graduate students were classified as white; only six were women, three of whom received Ph.D. degrees. (See lists of students who received graduate degrees.)

One of the graduate students during this period was Charles Townes, who received a master’s degree from Duke in 1937 and then earned his Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology. Dr. Townes won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964, for his role in the invention of the maser, and subsequently set up a fellowship at Duke to benefit graduate students.


  • Durden, Robert. The Launching of Duke University, 1924 – 1949.  Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1993.  
  • King, William E. “Refugee scholars at Duke University”, They Fled Hitler’s Germany and Found Refuge in North Carolina. 1996. Duke University Archives. If you have any corrections or additions, please contact: webmaster@phy.duke.edu.