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Nov. 16, 2004 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
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Melba Phillips, physicist, 1907-2004

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Melba Phillips

University of Chicago physicist Melba Phillips, a leading science educator who lost two jobs from New York institutions during the McCarthy era for refusing to testify against friends and colleagues before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, died Monday, Nov. 8, in a nursing home in Petersburg, Ind. She was 97.

“She was a spectacular teacher,” said Stuart Rice, the Frank Hixon Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry at the University of Chicago, who was an undergraduate student of Phillips’ at Brooklyn College. “What really distinguishes people who do interesting work in science is taste: how to smell an interesting problem. Somehow or other she managed to teach that without being explicit about it. That’s perhaps the most important thing I learned from her.”

As an educator, Phillips developed and implemented training for physics teaching at all grade levels and led a movement to improve physics teacher preparation. From 1966 to 1967 she served as the first woman president of the American Association of Physics Teachers. In 1981, the association presented her the first Melba Newell Phillips Award, which was created in her honor. The award is given “for exceptional contributions to physics education through leadership in the American Association of Physics Teachers.”

Phillips forged a career in science at a time when few women did so, and even took on leadership roles among her peers both as an educator and as a scientist with a social conscience. In 1945, representing a group called the Association of New York Scientists, she helped organize the founding of the Federation of American Scientists at a meeting in Washington, D.C. Also playing a key role in forming the group were Manhattan Project scientists such as Francis Bonner, a longtime friend of Phillips who met her at that meeting.

“That was a very important meeting because it forged a strong bond within the entire scientific community, and we went to work on civilian control of atomic energy,” said Bonner, a professor emeritus of chemistry at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Phillips’ career got off to a fast start after she became one of the first doctoral students of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the effort to build the first atomic bomb. She received her doctoral degree in physics under Oppenheimer’s supervision in 1933 at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1935, Phillips and Oppenheimer offered an explanation for what was at the time unexpected behavior of accelerated deuterons (nuclei of deuterium, or “heavy hydrogen” atoms) in reactions with other nuclei. This explanation became known as the Oppenheimer-Phillips effect. “It’s considered one of the classics of early nuclear physics,” Rice said.

Normally, a young scientist who had produced such a prominent piece of work could have expected to receive a junior-level faculty appointment at a research institution, Bonner said. “But no, there was none. There was a depression and jobs were scarce, although probably much more so for a woman than for a man at the time.”

After leaving Berkeley in 1935, Phillips held a series of temporary positions at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and the Connecticut College for Women.

In 1938, Phillips obtained a long-term faculty position at Brooklyn College. She also began working part-time in 1944 at the Columbia University Radiation Laboratory. She lost both jobs in 1952 for refusing to testify before the U.S. Senate’s Internal Security subcommittee, chaired by Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran to investigate alleged communist activities.

Brooklyn College publicly apologized for its action in 1987, although Phillips’ firing had been required by a law designed to prevent wrongdoing in city government.

“It provided that any New York City employee who invoked the Fifth Amendment in a duly constituted hearing was automatically severed from his job,” Bonner said. “McCarran was a specialist at putting people in the position in which they had to invoke the Fifth Amendment. It was a deliberate expression of the McCarthyism of the time.”

The school made further amends in 1997, when its physics department held a day-long symposium in her honor and established a student scholarship in her name.

Brooklyn College was not a research institution but was known for the high quality of its students, and Phillips made her presence felt primarily through teaching. “She came to be a major figure in science education,” Bonner said. “She stimulated many students who went on from there to very stellar careers.” Rice, for example, went on to receive the National Medal of Science in 1999.

After losing her jobs, Phillips remained unemployed for several years. During that time she wrote two textbooks, Principles of Physical Science, with Bonner, and Classical Electricity and Magnetism, with W.K.H. Panofsky, which became widely used for undergraduate and graduate physics training.

In 1957, Edward Condon at Washington University appointed Phillips associate director of the university’s Academic Year Institute, a teacher-training institute. Condon, a former director of the National Bureau of Standards and science adviser to Brian McMahon, chair of the special Senate committee on atomic energy, had himself been labeled a security risk by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s.

Phillips left Washington University to join the University of Chicago faculty in 1962, and retired as a Professor Emerita in 1972. Under her influence the University began teaching physical science courses for non-science majors, a tradition that continues today. She continued to work after leaving Chicago, serving as a visiting professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, until 1975, and as a visiting professor at the Graduate School of the University of Science and Technology, Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing, in 1980.

Phillips was born Feb. 1, 1907, in Hazleton, Ind. She graduated from high school at the age of 15, and by 1926 had already earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Oakland City College of Indiana. She received her master’s degree in physics in 1928 from Battle Creek College of Michigan, and her doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1933.

The American Physical Society presented its 2003 Joseph Burton Forum Award to Phillips. The society cited her “for tireless efforts in physics education, for continued work in preserving the history of physics as well as other service to the physics community, for her role in founding the Federation of American Scientists, and as a model of a principled scientist.”

Other honors include the Guy and Rebecca Forman Award for Outstanding Teaching in Undergraduate Physics from Vanderbilt University, 1988; the Karl Taylor Compton Award of the American Institute of Physics for distinguished statesmanship in science, 1981; the Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers, for notable contributions to the teaching of physics, 1974; an honorary degree from Oakland City College, 1964; and a Distinguished Service Citation, American Association of Physics Teachers, 1963. She also was an elected fellow of the American Physical Society and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Phillips is survived by five nieces, Judy Wier, Cincinnati, Ohio; Ellen Vinson, Hazleton, Ind.; Sharon Phillips, Ferndale, Calif.; Joan Birch, Sebastopol, Calif.; and Gladys Emerick, Pompano Beach, Fl.; as well as a nephew, Ralph Phillips, Hephzibah, Georgia. The family plans no public memorial service, in accordance with her wishes.
Last modified at 05:35 PM CST on Tuesday, November 16, 2004.

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