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Melba Phillips

Melba Newell Phillips

Melba Phillips was born Feb. 1, 1907, in Hazleton, Indiana. She received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics, 1926, from Oakland City College, IN and her master’s degree in physics, 1928, from Battle Creek College, MI. Melba continued on to become a Whiting fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1933 became J. Robert Oppenheimer’s first graduate student to receive a degree in theoretical physics. In 1935, Phillips and Oppenheimer developed the Oppenheimer-Phillips Process, describing the behavior of accelerated deuterons in reactions with other nuclei.

During World War II, Melba conducted research on radar countermeasures at Harvard Radio Research Lab, and following the war she was appointed to the Columbia University Radiation Laboratory. At this time she also was an assistant professor in the Physics Department at Brooklyn College. In 1952, at the height of McCarthy’s efforts to discredit noted scientists for supposed Communist leanings, Brooklyn College and the Columbia Radiation Laboratory dismissed Phillips for refusing to cooperate with a Congressional committee that was investigating friends and colleagues. Brooklyn College publicly apologized for their mistreatment of Melba in 1987.

While not employed for the next few years, Melba co-authored two textbooks in science: "Electricity and Magnetism" with W.K.H. Panofsky, and "Principles of Physical Science" with F. Bonner. In 1957, she was appointed associate director of Washington University’s Academic Year Institute, a teacher-training institute. Phillips left Washington University to join the University of Chicago faculty in 1962, and retired as an Emeritus Professor in 1972.

Phillips, an excellent educator, developed and implemented training for physics teaching at all grade levels and led a movement to improve physics teacher preparation. In 1966-67 Melba was the first woman president of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). In 1981, AAPT presented her the first Melba Newell Phillips Award, created in her honor “for exceptional contributions to physics education through leadership in the AAPT.” She won numerous other awards and was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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.

Melba took a deep interest in the history of science, and served as AAPT’s historian. She wrote an extensive history of AAPT, which led her to spend much time in the Niels Bohr Library’s archives. In her retirement she put in many hours editing two popular volumes of reprints of historical articles from Physics Today. For many years she was a strong supporter of the Center for History of Physics.

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