Our History: 1946 to 1962

The Post World War II Period

After the conclusion of World War II, during which several faculty members and students left to participate in the war effort, the Physics Department began a process of rebuilding. The most important goal was to hire excellent new faculty members. The department was looking for, in the words of Chairman Nielsen, 'young men' to be added to the faculty rolls. There was a desire to broaden the department, the first goal being to build a research program in nuclear physics, as well as to negotiate a contract with the Atomic Energy Commission to finance the program.

The Duke campus was expanding beyond the central quadrangle area. The department was engaged in the planning for a Physics Building which was constructed in 1947 on the West Campus on a new road to be named Science Drive. In 1947, as we have seen many times since, the cost was much higher than anticipated. The Physics Department, which had a fund of $200,000 to be used for new research equipment, had to use that money to pay for overruns in construction costs. The Chair reported, "In my negotiations with Dr. (Henry) Newson (a new faculty member), I told him that I had a fund of $100,000 for nuclear physics. As soon as the bids on the new building were in, I informed Dr. Newson that our capital research fund had disappeared and that we would have to go out and find additional funds." (In unpublished Chair's Annual Report, 1947). The Physics Building was occupied in 1948. Shortly after that, the west wing of the new Physics Building was extended to house the new Van De Graaf accelerator. This was the first commercially produced Van De Graaf to be installed on a university campus.  

Faculty Growth and Evolution

In 1946, there were three full professors (Hatley, Sponer, and Nielsen), two associate professors (Carpenter and Gordy), one assistant professor (Smith), and three instructors. The following year, Lothar Nordheim returned from his work at Oak Ridge and Henry Newson was hired, which gave the department the beginnings of a program in nuclear physics. In the late 1940's Eugene Greuling and Harold Lewis were added to the faculty. Fritz London, at Duke in the Chemistry Department since the 1930's, whose work overlapped with basic physics research, received a joint appointment in Physics. In 1951, Eugen Merzbacher held a visiting appointment to fill in while Lothar Nordheim was on leave at Los Alamos to work with Edward Teller on new weapons development.

Dr. William Fairbank joined the department in 1952, as Associate Professor, and began a low temperature physics program, installing a Collins Helium liquefier. Martin Block, who studied cosmic rays, was hired in the academic year 1951 as a Research Associate, becoming in 1952 Assistant Professor and in 1957 Associate Professor, T. D. Reynolds, who also was on the faculty of the Department of Education, and R. M. Williamson were added to the faculty. Unfortunately for the future of science, Fritz London died in March 1954.

Hired at the end of this period were Horst Meyer (1959), Lawrence Biedenharn (1961), Edward Bilpuch (who had been a Research Associate in 1956 before being hired into a permanent faculty position in 1961), Richard Walter (1962) and Earle Fowler (1962). These appointees were all important in the future development of the department.

In 1956, Lothar Nordheim resigned to accept a position with General Dynamics. Also in 1959 William Fairbank left for the Physics Department at Stanford University and the low temperature physics program was continued by Horst Meyer. In 1961 Martin Block left to become the Physics Chair at Northwestern University and R. M. Williamson left for Oakland University in Oakland, Michigan, a member of the Michigan State University State system.

Chairman Nielsen's health deteriorated and in 1961 he gave up the chairmanship. Harold Lewis acted as the Interim Chair for two years, until Henry Fairbank moved from Yale to become the Physics Department's new chair.

In order to encourage the research activity of faculty members, Chairman Nielsen tried to arrange for one faculty member to be on sabbatical each year.

Research Growth

The research which was taking place in Duke's Physics Department in the decade and a half after World War II were very important in the development of  theoretical physics, low temperature physics, microwave physics, nuclear physics and high energy physics.

Fritz London wanted to see his theories tested by the low temperature physics group of William Fairbank, who conducted pioneering experiments in liquid and solid helium three (3He). Liquid 3He was of interest to theorists because of its exotic properties, which did not follow the classical rules of statistical physics near absolute zero. Horst Meyer called this the "glorious period in low temperature physics at Duke." This research laid the groundwork for Robert Richardson, who later won the Nobel Prize.

Walter Gordy had an extremely productive period in microwave physics. He developed techniques that allowed him to go to millimeter frequencies, which permitted him to investigate differences in energy levels and atomic states of various gases. This important work led Gordy to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1964.

Henry Newson, the head of the nuclear physics group, used the new developments in technology, such as high resolution neutron spectroscopy to study energy levels of nuclei throughout the periodic table. This helped establish one of the fundamental models of the nucleus. In 1956 the American Physical Society devoted an entire session at their annual meeting in New York to the research being done at Duke.

Martin Block initiated the high energy physics program at Duke by building the world's first bubble chamber to use liquid helium. Although liquid helium is colder than liquid hydrogen and thus technically much more challenging to build and operate, it allowed the Duke group to make the first (and only) measurement of the K-Lambda relative parity. This required using hypernuclei created in stopping K--He4 reactions, obtained from exposures of the Duke chamber to kaon beams at the Bevatron accelerator (at that time, the world's highest energy accelerator!) at the Berkeley National Laboratory of the University of California.

Research Funding

The development of a research program always depends on outside funding. After World War II, the greatest source of funding for the basic sciences was the federal government. Funding for scientific research increased largely because it was thought that scientific progress was important for our modern military, and also for a strong economy.

Right from the beginning in 1946, the department had considerable government research funds of almost $100,000 and supported more than ten graduate students from these funds. At least 25 scientific articles were published or were in preparation, in journals such as "Physical Review" and in books. Funding in the postwar period was received by Drs. Gordy, Smith and Sponer from Watson Laboratory, the Air Force, the Office of Naval Research, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In 1947-1948, a small research program in the field of cosmic radiation, which had been interrupted because of the war, resumed. The faculty was debating how to structure a research program in nuclear physics.

By 1950, at least 23 graduate students and 8 research associates were supported by federal and corporate grants. In 1951, with increased funding, one of the first commercially produced Van de Graff accelerators was purchased and installed behind the Physics Building. This was used to test the theories of Nordheim about the structure of nuclei. During the 1951-52 academic year, external grant funding reached over $1.3 million.

In 1951-52, the department felt it was necessary to develop a policy for the acceptance of research funding. The policy as formulated by the faculty is as follows:

  1. It is our policy to undertake contract research only when the research contemplated in the contract advances our educational mission as a department. The problem to be undertaken must be directly along the line of research interest of a staff member. The research to be carried out must be such that graduate students can be trained in the methods of basic physical research.
  2. The graduate education and training of young potential scientists are made a part of our breakdown of costs by object of expenditure. It specifically points out that the graduate students employed as research assistants on the contract will be permitted to register for as much as 4/5ths of a full graduate program.
  3. We have attempted wherever possible to have contract funds available for summer employment of the principal investigators. During the post-war era physicists have found it relatively easy to find employment for the summer off the campus. By making it possible for personnel to remain on the campus, our own program has been very materially benefited.
  4. Whenever possible we have used contract funds to provide postdoctoral fellowships in the form of Research Associateships to young men who have recently received their Ph.D. degree. In the main such Research Associates come to us from other laboratories; a considerable number from abroad.

In 1953, the American Physical Society had a meeting in our local area, attended by more than 1000 physicists. Also in 1953, the NSF offered the department $8,500 to host an international Conference on Cosmic Rays in Durham.

By 1954, the following research groups had programs at Duke: nuclear physics, low temperature physics; radiofrequency and microwave spectroscopy, molecular spectroscopy and theoretical physics. Part of the program in high energy physics that was at Brookhaven National Lab was transferred to Duke. The cosmic ray high energy group, led by Martin Block, and the low temperature group cooperated on the development of a liquid helium bubble chamber which was attracting attention from other physicists. Professor Sponer's work using low temperature techniques in molecular structure studies was making good progress. Walter Gordy was on several national committees and had published several noted papers. Chairman Nielsen felt that the department had strength because of its broad research interests and was being recognized for several of its research groups.

By the mid 1950's the department had a large number of separate research funds to keep track of. Dr. Nielsen noted that the personnel payrolls, contract renewals, and purchasing associated with these grants have created a significant administrative burden on the department.

Undergraduate Education during the Chairmanship of Dr. Nielsen

The department's interest in really gifted students and promising students was repeated consistently in department annual reports. Department faculty wanted to concentrate only on those students who were interested in becoming professional physicists, since at that time physics was not seen as preparation for a wide variety of careers. It was generally felt that a career in physics required training beyond the undergraduate level, and therefore, if a student was not likely to gain acceptance to a good graduate program, he should not be physics major.

In Dr. Nielsen's annual report of 1946-47, he expressed great pride in the fact that there were 25 declared physics undergraduate majors, about three times the pre-war numbers. However, many students, who had declared their majors as physics, were encouraged to change to another major. The faculty's attitude was very focused on the place of the undergraduate major in the student's future. There was a general feeling among the faculty that only excellent students with chances of progressing and doing well in Physics graduate programs should major in physics. Faculty members followed the progress of their graduates and took great pride in their majors doing well in major graduate programs.

During this period there was consistent interest in strengthening the undergraduate program for its majors. Goals mentioned were better coordination of the lab and the classroom material; improving the curriculum; and increasing the personal contact between talented students and faculty members. In general, for the beginning classes, the Chair felt that too many recitation sections are conducted by temporary personnel, such as Research Associates, with the quality of instruction suffering as a result. The faculty wanted to coordinate the topics covered by the courses, so that the students who majored in physics could take a larger number of advanced courses. Topics, such as atomic physics, mechanics, electronics and more calculus were introduced into the majors courses. In 1951-52, the Advanced Laboratory course was in the planning stages. The next year, a new section of the introductory physics course was established for physics and other science majors. In addition, undergraduate majors who were taking the course in advanced laboratory techniques were assigned to research projects, so that they would learn actual experimental techniques as well as see the difference between laboratory experiments and what goes on in a research laboratory. By 1954, there were separate physics courses for non-science majors.  

In the late 1950's there was the perception that there was a nationwide shortage of scientific manpower, which had implications for national security. Chairman Nielsen wanted to spend more of his time and energy on this problem and was involved in two initiatives which aimed at ameliorating this situation. Nielsen attended an NSF sponsored meeting of Chairmen of Physics Departments on the eastern seaboard to discuss common problems, such as the reasonable salary for a research assistant and the use of research associates in the undergraduate program. Nielsen also taught a six week NSF sponsored summer course in physics to a group of high school science teachers.

The department, attempting to understand how to appeal to future young scientists, sent a questionnaire to undergraduates and graduate students asking questions about which factors made them interested in studying science. The department, then, made a brochure, A Message to High School Seniors, which describes the field of physics and the opportunities for those who study physics. Nielsen hoped that faculty members would give talks to interested high school groups. However, faculty members were struggling with the demands on their time to do research, to teach, to pay attention to the broader university issues, as well as plan activities in the community. Therefore, Nielsen's hopes of faculty involvement outside of the professional responsibilities were not fulfilled.

Graduate Education

Graduate education consisted of required coursework, teaching assistant responsibilities, as well as research assistant participation in research of their advisors. The environment was informal. Relationships between students and faculty were close; there was much social activity as well as academic involvement.

In the mid-1950's, for the first time, the M.S. degree was approved by the university.

Relationship with the College of Engineering

Another common theme was a desire for closer cooperation between the Physics Department and the College of Engineering. There was an interest in establishing a minor in physics for those students majoring in engineering. Some Engineering faculty members collaborated on physics research projects. For example, Michael Buckingham, along with Harry Owen and Tom Wilson, helped William Fairbank design his pioneer experiments, particularly the Lambda Point Experiments.

In the mid-1950s, for the first time, the Physics Department began teaching a general physics course for engineering students. Atomic physics was required for electrical engineering students and beginning in 1957 was recommended as an elective for other engineering majors.

Other important items

By the mid-1950s, the Society of Sigma Xi initiated the Fritz London Memorial Lectures. The first lecture was given by Prof. Lothar Nordheim. Sigma Xi contributed funding for the lecture; there was the hope that both the Physics and Chemistry Departments would contribute funding in future years if Sigma Xi could not alone pay for the costs. This annual lecture continues to be presented each year, still being funded by Sigma Xi, the Chemistry Department, the Physics Department and the Fritz London Lecture Fund. This last Fund is made possible by an endowment created by John Bardeen from his 1972  Physics Nobel Prize in honor of  London.

By the end of the 1950's, Chair Nielsen expressed an interest in having a computer on the Duke campus, a desire for air conditioning in the building (he installed a window unit for his secretary, to the dismay of the Buildings and Grounds Department), and the need for more space for the department. He argued that, in light of Sputnik, science education should be emphasized and that the sciences should be at least as important as the humanities.


  • Much of the information presented here is from Chairman Nielsen's annual reports during this period. The assistance of Horst Meyer, Lawrence E. Evans, and Edward Bilpuch is very much appreciated. If you have any corrections or additions, please contact webmaster@phy.duke.edu.