Photo above by Professor J. M. Kuehne
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This site is an unofficial history of the Physics Department at the University of Texas at Austin. It was created and is maintained by Emeritus Professor Melvin Oakes who served as a postdoc and a faculty member from 1964-2005. The impetus for the site was a LETTER and a 1946 PHOTOGRAPH sent by Lois Holt Mallory to department chair, Richard Hazeltine. Richard passed the letter to me, and I began a search to identify those in the picture. I knew some; however, the majority and the occasion were not know. I contacted Lois Mallory and the search was on. Conversations with Emeritus Professor David Gavenda and past-chair Richard Hazeltine led to the suggestion that a history of the department needed to be created. As I was retired and had long been interested in the department's history, I agreed to write a history. It became clear to me that a website would offer more flexibility and longevity to this effort. Lois Mallory generously offered to provide information from her time at UT and to proof the site as I created it. The results of this effort is what is presented here. Photographs, stories, information and corrections are greatly appreciated. They can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to Melvin Oakes, 2507 Briargrove, Austin, TX, 78704
The URL for this site, hosted by the Department of Physics is:
There is a search box on the Site Guide page.
The University of Texas and the Physics Department accept no responsibility for the content of this site. The views and opinions expressed are strictly those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Regents of the University of Texas or any recognized State organization. Comments on the contents should be directed to the author. Much of the material on the site has been written by Mel Oakes. He has tried to acknowledge the source of material that has been quoted. Email of incidences where he has neglected to provide proper attribution are greatly appreciated.
Some photographs on this site have been retouched with the goal of restoring them to their original condition. An effort has been made to maintain the historical accuracy of the content of all photos.
When Richard Hazeltine asked if I would do a web site covering the history of the UT Physics Department, I asked for time to think about it. Before deciding I listed some reasons why it would be a useful project. Here is my list. If you have others, let me know.
1. Really great departments have a tradition of excellence that is publicized. The public’s perception of a department is important in providing the support necessary to maintain and enhance department excellence.
2. Important organizations should leave a historical footprint. This can provide perspective and pride. Future historians will surely appreciate our efforts.
3. Loyalty among alumni is an admirable and constructive condition unless it becomes totally dedicated to football. Often it is far easier to find sports than science on a school web site. A history site can provide an opportunity for alumni to reconnect with the department and with other alumni in a positive way. It can also provide a less formal window on the department that can be enjoyed and shared by alumni, their families and friends. Prospective students may also glean information about the rich traditions and extensive accomplishments of this important and cherished department.
4. Long term recognition for the faculty, staff and students who are part of our legacy just seems to me to be overdue and honorable. Despite the limited time I have been exploring our department, I have been impressed with the dedication and accomplishments of this department in years past. Some remarkable individuals have been members of this department.
5. Finally, the site can show how alumni have honored faculty and can also provide an opportunity for others to participate or extend recognition to other faculty, staff and students.
6. After creating the site it has become clear that another reason belongs here. Relatives and friends of those who have been associated with the department are delighted to learn of contributions their father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, or classmate made to science, to the state, to the nation and to the world.
This site’s core material is roughly arranged by three history timelines that coincide with the three buildings the department has occupied. Within those time lines there are many links to pages that provide more detailed information about individuals and events. The Site Guide page will be quite useful to users. New information will be added as it becomes available. Check out the trivia questions at the end of this page.
Many people have generously contributed material and information for this site. As the site has grown the number has become legion. Here are a few that were helpful in the beginning when the numbers were trackable. Juanita Miller, Donald Davis Phillips Jr., Harold Hanson, Wilson Nolle, Jim Thompson, David Gavenda, Steve Weinberg, Nobel Foundation, Margaret Schlankey, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Lee Clippard, George B. Thurston, David Blackstock, Cécile DeWitt-Morette, Allene Ramsey, Richard Boner, Teresa Brigance, Clarence J. Newton, Jennifer Kinsey Mogdigliani, Chester McKinney, Robert Schuhmann, Dot Waldrip, F. Arnold Romberg, Joe and Margaret Blau Clegg, Brother Earl Leistkow, Janee Trybyszewski, Myrna Payne, Molly Colby Williams, Steve Colby, Carol Colby Baxter, Les Deavers, Barbara Hanson Herbert, Edna Wittig, Peter Riley, Rory Coker, Richard Matzner, A. E. Robson, Susie Scherr, Laura Lane Dailey, Sarah Mifsud, Roger Bengtson, Richard Hazeltine, Paula Worgan, Bruce Buchanan, and Don Brownlee (his extensive collection of Texas college yearbooks and his willingness to provide scans has been especially valuable and appreciated). Many thanks to Carl Hehmsoth who has been very helpful, by writing Python scripts to expedite time consuming tasks necessary to publish graphics on this website.
Special thanks to Lois Holt Mallory, whose gift of a photograph to the department, spurred the creation of this site. The site has greatly benefited from her many hours of proofreading, her advice, and her friendship.
Special appreciation goes to my wife, Pat, legendary sixth grade teacher, Austin Great Grown-up Spelling Bee Multiple Champion, and exacting grammarian, for her advice, support and countless hours reading and editing many of these pages. While more remains to be done, her contributions and encouragement entitle her to share in any success these pages achieve.
This site is dedicated to the late William W. “Bill” Robertson, an undergraduate, a graduate student and a professor in the UT Physics Department. In 1935, Bill came to the University as a freshman from Uvalde. Though he formally retired in 1988, he continued to work with teaching laboratories until 2001. By my count that is 66 years! Bill Robertson was a man of great integrity who genuinely loved the University. He saw it as a vital organ of the State of Texas. Every day of his life he asked himself, “Is there something else I can do to make it a better place for all?” The creation of the College of Natural Sciences was one of his accomplishments.
Appropriately, Bill revered the faculty and staff that preceded him, as well as those who were his colleagues. He introduced me to the many members of the faculty to be found in this history. I owe him much and greatly miss his friendship and wise counsel.—Mel Oakes
The physics department goes back to the origins of the University of Texas itself. In 1883, only 10 years after the last of the American Indian Wars in Texas, the University opened its doors with the first faculty consisting of eight members. The Chair of the Faculty was Irishman, John William Mallett, a celebrated professor of chemistry and physics from University of Virginia. This appointment provided much needed recognition and assured the people of Texas and the nation that the new university was a serious institution. It also signaled to the scientific community that they should not dismiss what was happening here. There is a subtext to Mallett's story: Mallett's son had tuberculosis, and the doctors had suggested that the drier climate might help. It did not. The son died that year. Mallett decided that the Regent's failure to provide adequate financial support would prevent him building a department of the first class so he returned to Virginia. A string of other faculty came to the same conclusion. Alexander MacFarlane, physicist and mathematician, came from University of Edinburgh. He was well-known and a colleague of Maxwell. He and the chair of chemistry were fired for pushing the Regents too hard on funding. They wanted more laboratory and shop facilities. Over the next years, the University had some pretty outstanding students and faculty; however, these were people early in their careers and nearly all left to pursue most of their work elsewhere. George Washington Pierce, from Webberville graduated in 1894 and went on to become a very successful professor at Harvard. Most went to Chicago or Harvard; that's where the trains went. Edwin Northrup, later of Leeds-Northrup Company fame, was at UTfor a year before joining Princeton. Eugene Feenberg took a BS and MS at Texas and later was at Washington University and a member of the National Academy. The department did grow a few stars, Arnold Romberg and Lucian LaCoste of gravity meter fame and Charles Boner in acoustics. Any list of outstanding acousticians would be dominated by Texas graduates. The University and the department made an attempt in 1939 to bring Ernest Lawrence to Austin following his receipt of the Nobel Prize for the cyclotron. They offered to build him a new machine and a new laboratory. Sadly, he turned the university down. There was little recruiting at the star level until the 1960s. This changed when the State of Texas decided that it was necessary to extend the economy beyond oil and gas. The budding electronics industry was targeted. The State was told that building great universities would achieve their goal. Harold Hanson became chair of physics in 1962. His vision of the department was for it to rate among the top 10 universities in the nation. That was a challenge. The Cartter Report in 1966 ranked the physics department "Adequate Plus". Only one UT department was found to be excellent, the German-Linguistics department. These rankings gave Hanson and other chairs and deans the ammunition to seek more funds to significantly increase their rankings. It didn't hurt that a Texan was in the White House. It was in the sixties that Al Schild, Bill Drummond, Ilya Prigogine, Yuval Neeman and then George Sudarshan were recruited. The 1970 Roose-Anderson report listed UT physics at 27th, not bad considering that 130 institutions were in the study. Later studies rated UT Physics as one of the most improved departments in the nation. The department budget grew from $400,000 to $1.2 million by the time Hanson left in 1970. The national recognition brought many outstanding additions to the physics faculty and international recognition.
The history of the UT Physics Department undeniably demonstrates the economic benefit to the State and the Nation of a program which trains young men and women at the forefront of scientific knowledge. Time and time again these graduates have emerged with the necessary confidence and knowledge to tackle the nation’s technical problems, to provide important tools during wartime, and to launch initiatives that created opportunity and wealth for many. Companies abound that had their beginnings with the ideas and hard work of students and faculty of the physics department. Many have risen to important positions in major corporations. Others have provided scientific leadership at universities and at national and industrial laboratories. The citizens of Texas can take pride in what their support over the past century and quarter has yielded.
In my research, it has become clear, that many of the tensions and challenges experienced today by the University and the Department are not new. The two quotes below highlight how long the road has been:
“In an age so fruitful in development, both in empire and material wealth and prosperity, the attention that the State should pay to science is a question of gravest import and should in a large degree be measured by the benefits derived from science, both in culture and material advancement. Upon the proper decision of this question the rank of the commonwealth or nation among the sister sovereignties of the earth will depend. To the thoughtful observers of the trend of events in the last century, no statement of facts or arguments in favor of generous State support is necessary. Such conclusion follows as the night the day, and for him who doubts, a glance at the map of the nations of the earth and the order they occupy in importance and influence will convince the most skeptical that permanent national prosperity, whether as to civic or material affairs, is absolutely impossible without a broad and underlying interest in and support of scientific training and research. Jefferson is cited as saying:
"Some good men, and even men of respectable information, consider the learned sciences as useless acquirements; some think they do not better the condition of men; others that education, like private and individual concerns, should be left to private individual effort, not reflecting that an establishment embracing all sciences which may be useful, and even necessary, in the various avocations of life, with the buildings and apparatus belonging to each, is far beyond the reach of individual means and must either derive existence from public patronage or not at all.”
Prof. Thomas U. Taylor, Engineering Professor of the State University, as president of the Texas Academy of Science, 1900.
The idea of legislative duty to the university is forcibly expressed in an eloquent address delivered at the University Commencement at Austin in 1884 by Col. William Preston Johnston, then president of Tulane University, in which he said:
"The first fact that strikes one in contemplating the university is that it is the child of the State entitled by birthright to the intellectual heirship of its imperial progenitor. With this come great responsibilities. Born in the purple, it is held to a princely accountability. Its motto is "Noblesse oblige." It must accept the pains and perils as well as the prestige and privileges of a lofty destiny. Troops of friends should attend it, and it should be imbued with the wealth and power to carry out the design for which it was created. If not, its lot is like that of other pauper princes, discrowned kings, and exiled monarchs. ”
Both quotes from History of Education in Texas by John J. Lane, A.M., LL. B., Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903
This list of questions could easily be expanded many times. The answers are found in the site pages which are linked below.