Henry W. Newson

Henry W. Newson (1965)

Henry Winston Newson, a distinguished experimental nuclear physicist famous for his research program on neutron resonances and known as the inventor (with colleagues) of the overall control system still used in modern reactors, was born on November 26, 1909 in Lawrence, Kansas. He earned a BSc in chemistry at the University of Illinois in 1931 and a PhD in chemistry at the University of Chicago in 1934. His education was followed by a Fellowship at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, University of California until 1936, then by instructorships in chemistry and later in physics at the University of Chicago until 1941. He served as senior physicist in that university’s metallurgical laboratory until 1943, during which time the first nuclear chain reaction was observed under the leadership of Enrico Fermi. He then became section chief at Clinton Laboratories at Oak Ridge, Tennessee (the fore-runner of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory) and worked as a technical expert at Hanford Engineering Works until 1945. For the next year he was a group leader at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory during the development of the first atomic bomb.

Henry W. Newson (1940)

In 1946 he became Chief Physicist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and served in this capacity until joining the Duke University Physics faculty in 1948. At Duke he was involved with improving the precision of nuclear spectroscopy, initially through the acquisition and installation in 1951 of one of the first commercially-produced Van de Graaff accelerators. He became in 1961 Director of the Nuclear Structure Laboratory at Duke University. With support from the US Atomic Energy Commission, he established in 1966 the Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory (TUNL), based at Duke University, and in 1968 became its Director. This laboratory includes groups from Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Since then he and several younger faculty members attached to this laboratory - initially Edward Bilpuch, N. Russell Roberson and Richard Walter -, directed numerous experimentalists in nuclear research based around a 15 MeV tandem accelerator and a 15 MeV cyclotron injector. Under Newson’s leadership, this regional facility attracted worldwide reputation in several areas of nuclear physics, in particular through the high resolution studies of isobaric analogue resonances. 

In 1968, Newson was named James B. Duke Professor of Physics, and from 1973 until 1975 he served as Chairman of the Physics Department. (See list of publications) He died on May 14, 1978 at the age of 68 after a short illness from a vascular disorder of the brain.

Newson taught Nuclear Physics and mentored 25 graduate students and a dozen of postdoctoral associates. Among his most notable students were Willy Haeberli, who became an eminent faculty member at the University of Wisconsin and Jack Gibbons, a senior scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratories, who was Science Advisor to President Clinton. Newson’s TUNL laboratory attracted a large number of domestic and foreign visitors, experimentalists as well as theorists who strongly influenced his program with their suggestions, such as Walter Greiner of the University of Frankfurt, who visited Duke several times. Also under Newson, TUNL hosted a number of topical nuclear structure conferences. 

Newson was the recipient of numerous honors, among them the War Department Manhattan Project Service Award (1945) and the American Nuclear Society’s Atomic Industrial Forum Commemorative Medal in 1962. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of various state and national nuclear energy advisory boards. From 1948 until his death, Newson was consultant to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and served similarly at Argonne and Brookhaven National Laboratories, and to the National Academy of Sciences in matters of nuclear physics. The endowed Henry Newson lectures which were established by his successor as Director of TUNL, Edward Bilpuch, attracted a number of the most prominent speakers in Nuclear Physics, among them three Nobel Prize winners, also D. Allan Bromley of Yale University, who was Presidential Science Adviser, and Victor Weisskopf of the MIT. His legacy is an internationally recognized nuclear physics laboratory with an innovative research program, directed successively by Edward Bilpuch, N. Russell Roberson, Werner Tornow and presently by Calvin Howell.

Henry  Newson with his former graduate student, later his successor as TUNL Director, Edward Bilpuch, examining the data registered in the TUNLcontrol room. (1974)

Henry Newson’s marriage to Meta Thode in 1934 was a very happy and harmonious one. The Newsons had two daughters, Meta-Mary and Caroline. Henry was a relaxed and amiable person with a caustic wit, and full of amusing stories, and to whom his many associates and friends were greatly devoted.