University of Texas at Austin

Physics Department History

  Last Update

  June 29, 2015

University of Texas from  Wooldridge Hill

Photo by J. M. Kuehne


Site Information

This site is an unofficial history of the Physics Department at the University of Texas at Austin.  It is under construction by Emeritus Professor Melvin Oakes who served as postdoc and faculty member from 1964-2005.  Emeritus Professor David Gavenda and current Chair Richard Hazeltine suggested the project.  Photographs, stories, information and corrections are greatly appreciated.  They can be emailed to or mailed to Melvin Oakes, 2507 Briargrove, Austin, TX, 78704

The URL for this site, hosted by the Department of Physics is: 

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(s).

Some photographs on this site have been retouched with the goal of restoring them to their original condition.  An effort was 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.  The UT iPhone App makes it far easier to find sports than science.  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 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 very short 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.

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.


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, & Don Brownlee (his extensive collection of Texas college yearbooks and his willingness to provide scans has been especially valuable and appreciated). 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.

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. 

Made on a Mac
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

UT Physics Department Trivia Test

  1. 1.What UT Physics graduate appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine?

  2. 2.What UT Physics faculty member later won two Academy Awards?

  3. 3.What celebrated newsman had his career decided by a UT faculty member?

  4. 4.What UT Physics faculty member won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry?

  5. 5. What UT Physics graduate created Deja News, the Usenet search engine company which became Google Groups?

  6. 6.What UT Physics graduate and faculty member held the Texas Intercollegiate A. A. record for the mile and half-mile?

  7. 7.What UT Physics graduate became the first woman appointed to the UT Physics faculty? She is likely the second in all of the South and Southwest.  Who was the second woman appointed? What was the time lapse between appointments?

  8. 8.What UT Physics faculty member studied and worked in the laboratory of Nobelist Lord Rutherford, discoverer of the nuclear model of the atom?

  9. 9.What UT Physics faculty member worked with Nobel winners, Frédéric and Irene Joliot-Curie, who synthesized new radioactive elements? Irene was the  daughter of Marie Curie. 

  10. 10. What UT Physics faculty member, with UT faculty member Leo Belmont, is credited with founding the Southwest Conference?

  11. 11. What UT Physics faculty member had one of the earliest radio shows in Texas, a musical show?

  12. 12. Name both the UT student and UT faculty member who revolutionized oil and mineral exploration with the invention of a new gravimeter.

  13. 13. What UT faculty member and former Chair served as Executive Director, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, U. S. House of Representatives?

  14. 14. What UT physics student submitted the first  graduate thesis in 1894?

This list of questions could easily be expanded many times. The answers are found in the site pages which are linked below.

Question 1

Question 2

Question 3

Question 4

Question 5

Question 6

Question 7

Question 8

Question 9

Question 10

Question 11

Question 12

Question 13

Question 14


Reflection on Department’s History

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.

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     This site is dedicated to 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



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