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Physicist Melba Phillips, 97, Dies

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2004; Page B04

University of Chicago physicist Melba Phillips, who lost two higher education jobs during the McCarthy era for refusing to testify before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, died of coronary artery disease Nov. 8 in a nursing home in Petersburg, Ind. She was 97.

Dr. Phillips, who went on to become one of the leading physics educators of her time, was teaching at Brooklyn College in 1952, with a part-time position at the Columbia University Radiation Laboratory. The Senate Judiciary Committee's internal security subcommittee, which was investigating some of her friends and colleagues, summoned her to testify. She appeared but refused to answer the subcommittee's questions.

Melba Phillips refused to testify before a Senate panel in 1952.

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Dr. Phillips was fired and was unemployed for several years. During this time, she wrote two textbooks, "Principles of Physical Science" (1957), with Francis Bonner, and "Classical Electricity and Magnetism" (1955), with W.K.H. Panofsky, which is still used in undergraduate and graduate physics classes. She also edited books on the history of physics.

"She came to be a major figure in science education," said Bonner, a Manhattan Project scientist and professor emeritus of chemistry at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. "She was a stellar teacher. She was very soft-spoken. You had to listen carefully to hear her. She had a way of getting her audience spellbound. She was a wonderful teacher and a great source of stimulation.

"She didn't dwell on [the job loss] with me. She didn't see any alternative, and she was a very principled woman who lived according to her principles," Bonner said.

Brooklyn College publicly apologized in 1987. Ten years later, the school held a day-long symposium in her honor and established a scholarship in her name.

But long before that, she had established her credentials as a master teacher and scientist. She helped organize the founding of the Federation of American Scientists in 1945. She was the first woman to be president of the American Association of Physics Teachers in 1966. Last year, the American Physical Society gave her its Joseph Burton Forum Award for her education work and for being "a model of a principled scientist."

She was one of the first doctoral students of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the effort to build the first atomic bomb. In 1935, they published an explanation for the unexpected behavior of accelerated nuclei of "heavy hydrogen" atoms, which became known as the Oppenheimer-Phillips effect.

Jobs were scarce for academics during the Depression and scarcer for women working in science, so Dr. Phillips held a series of temporary jobs before she landed her first permanent position at Brooklyn College in 1938.

After her 1952 firing and five years of unemployment, she became associate director of a teacher-training institute at Washington University in St. Louis. She joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1962 and worked there until her retirement 10 years later. Under her influence, the university began teaching physical science courses to non-science majors.

After retiring in 1972, she worked as a visiting professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, until 1975 and at the Graduate School of the University of Science and Technology, Chinese Academy of Science, in Beijing in 1980.

Born in Hazleton, Ind., she graduated from high school at age 15 and received a bachelor's degree in math from Oakland City College of Indiana in 1926. She received a master's degree in physics from Battle Creek College of Michigan in 1928 and her doctorate in physics in 1933 at the University of California at Berkeley.

Among her many honors, she was an elected fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

She had no immediate survivors.

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