History 1924 to 1945
Physics Department History
1924 – 1945
Duke University was established in 1924, when James B. Duke, an
industrialist and philanthropist, gave a gift which would transform
Trinity College into a new research-oriented university to be named
Duke University, after its founder. Trinity College had been in
existence since 1838, although in Durham only since 1892.
President William P. Few and Dean William H. Wannamaker kept the titles
and offices that they had had at Trinity College. Wannamaker now also
held the title of Vice President.
Wannamaker, along with Few, was responsible for faculty
recruitment. They both valued the importance of undergraduate
education and teaching. However, the opening of the Graduate School in
1926 made it crucial to appoint accomplished faculty members who could
establish great research departments.
establishing the new Physics Department, Few and Wannamaker hired
Charles W. Edwards, who had been a faculty member in Trinity College
since 1898, to be the new chairman. Edwards did not have a PhD; neither
did he have experience with research nor with establishing a research
department. This appointment turned out to be a critical mistake that
would have serious reverberations for the Physics Department by the
middle of the 1930’s. Other early faculty appointments went to Charles
Hatley, hired in 1924, and who had taught at Trinity College since
1917; and to Walter M. Nielsen, hired in 1925, and who
would have a productive research career. Robert Durden says that
“Trouble began early….” Edwards had “deep misgivings about both Hatley
and Nielsen” and tensions were high among Physics Department
faculty. (Durden, p. 92)
In the early
years, three additional faculty members were appointed: David W.
Carpenter, who would receive a PhD from Duke in 1933, was hired as an
Instructor in 1929; Frank Woodbridge Constant, who studied magnetism
and had received a PhD from Yale, in 1930; James Carlyle Mouzon, with a
PhD from California Institute of Technology, in 1932, as Instructor.
Although the Duke family’s gift was large, it was not sufficient
to create a high quality research university. The original endowment
was small and suffered as a result of the depression of the
1930’s. However, at the same time, the Rockefeller Foundation
funded an Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars,
which assisted scholars fleeing from Nazi Germany by working together
with universities in the United States to hire these scholars.
Few felt that Duke was fortunate to participate in a program that made
available distinguished scholars to staff this fledgling
university. Initially, this committee paid all of the expenses of
the scholars and no long term commitments were required of the
universities. However, as the Nazis gained more power in Germany,
the number of academic refugees grew so large that the Committee could
only afford financial assistance for a three year period and agreements
were changed so that the universities had to provide permanent funding
for these scholars. Through this program Duke hired three German Jewish
scientists: William Stern into the Psychology Department, Fritz London
into the Chemistry Department, and Lothar Nordheim into the Physics
Department. Hertha Sponer, who was not Jewish, wanted to emigrate from
Germany because the Nazis refused to have women in university faculty
positions. She was recruited by Duke and joined the Physics
Department with the title of Professor in 1936. Although Fritz
London was initially hired by the Chemistry Department, he was given a
joint appointment to the Physics Department in the late 1940’s.
During these early years within the Physics Department, there
were tensions among faculty members, most having to do with the
administration of the department and the development of a dynamic
research program. By the mid-1930’s Few and Wannamaker became
personally active in attracting great scientists whose presence would
make the transition from a “no man’s land” (in Wannamaker’s own words)
to a department that would produce scientific research results
(Durden). In 1936, Few named a committee whose members were
Wannamaker, Nielsen and Hatley to supervise the department and prepare
its budget. In 1937, Nielsen became the new Chair, replacing
Under Nielsen’s leadership,
and with the arrivals of Sponer and Nordheim, the Physics Department
was developing in both experimental and theoretical physics.
Nielsen was an experimental nuclear physicist; Nordheim, a theoretical
nuclear physicist; and Sponsor, whose field was experimental
spectroscopy. An item of great importance to Chairman Nielsen was the development of a departmental instrument workshop, led by George Newton, which was a unique facility on the Duke campus and was often engaged with projects for other departments. Nielsen made always sure to include the shop workers in departmental functions and celebrations, and made it quite clear how much he valued their work. This machine shop developed further after Mr. Newton's retirement in 1945, under the new leadership of Milton Whitfield who retired after an effective leadership in 1968.
World War II interfered with the progress that the Department was making.
physicists from around the country left their departments to work on
war time weapons. Lothar Nordheim was one Duke faculty member who
played an important role as a nuclear physicist at the Oak Ridge
Laboratories during the war. Harold Lewis, who was a graduate
student, left Duke and joined the Naval Ordnance Laboratory as an
expert on magnetic fields and mine detection. From 1942 to 1945,
Frank W. Constant was the director of Duke’s Division of Physical War
Research. Both Nordheim and Lewis returned to Duke after
the war to continue their work.
Graduate Degrees Given from 1926 through 1945
know of 49 students who received graduate degrees during this
period. Twenty four of these received PhD degrees. Thirty-seven
students received Master of Arts degrees, and of these, twelve also
received PhDs. All of the graduate students were classified
as white; only six were women, three of whom received PhD degrees. (See
lists of students who received graduate degrees.)
One of the graduate students during this period was Charles
Townes, who received a master’s degree from Duke in 1937 and then
earned his PhD at the California Institute of Technology. Dr.
Townes won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964, for his role in the
invention of the maser, and subsequently set up a fellowship at Duke to
benefit graduate students.
Durden, Robert. The Launching of Duke University, 1924 – 1949. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1993.
William E. “Refugee scholars at Duke University”, They Fled Hitler’s
Germany and Found Refuge in North Carolina.
1996. Duke University Archives. If you have any corrections or additions, please contact: email@example.com