December 2, 2004
Vol. 24 No. 6

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    Phillips, 97, reformed physics education

    University 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, 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.

    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., which advocated the civilian control of atomic energy.

    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, said Francis Bonner, a longtime friend of Phillips and a professor emeritus of chemistry at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. “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 that was investigating alleged communist activities.

    Brooklyn College publicly apologized for its action in 1987. The school’s physics department held a daylong symposium in her honor in 1997, and it established a student scholarship in her name.

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

    In 1957, Phillips became associate director of a teacher-training institute at Washington University in St. Louis. She left Washington University to join the Chicago faculty in 1962 and retired as Professor Emerita in Physics in 1972. Phillips influenced the University to begin teaching physical science courses to non-science majors, a tradition that continues today.

    After leaving Chicago, she served 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, she already had earned a B.S. in mathematics from Oakland City College of Indiana. She received her M.S. in physics in 1928 from Battle Creek College of Michigan.

    She received many awards, including the American Physical Society’s 2003 Joseph Burton Forum Award and the 1974 Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

    Phillips is survived by five nieces, Judy Wier of Cincinnati; Ellen Vinson of Hazleton, Ind.; Sharon Phillips of Ferndale, Calif.; Joan Birch of Sebastopol, Calif.; and Gladys Emerick of Pompano Beach, Fl.; as well as a nephew, Ralph Phillips of Hephzibah, Ga. The family plans no public memorial service, in accordance with her wishes.