Abelson, Philip H(auge) 1913-2004

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ABELSON, Philip H(auge) 1913-2004


See index for CA sketch: Born April 27, 1913, in Tacoma, WA; died of pneumonia, August 1, 2004, in Bethesda, MD. Physicist, chemist, engineer, biologist, editor, and author. The multitalented Abelson was a revered scientist whose work led to several important advancements and discoveries, including key research that led to the development of the atomic bomb and the first nuclear submarine, the discovery of the element neptunium, and important research on the bacterium E. coli that was instrumental in furthering the science of genetic engineering. Graduating from what is now Washington State University with a B.S. in chemistry in 1933 and an M.S. in physics in 1935, he then earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1939. After a year's stint at the Carnegie Institution as a research scientist, Abelson worked at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., during the early 1940s. Here he discovered how to separate isotopes from uranium in a process that was used by the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. His interest in nuclear physics then combined with a talent for engineering as he devised a way to marry nuclear power to propulsion systems that led to the creation of the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus. Abelson then returned to the Carnegie Institution, where he was chair of biophysics at the department of terrestrial magnetism from 1946 to 1953. While there, he researched the bacteria E. coli, a common organism about which little was known at the time. He literally cowrote the book on the subject, Studies of Biosynthesis in Escherichia Coli (1955). This research later helped genetic scientists tremendously. Meanwhile, Abelson also proved he could assist paleontologists by discovering how amino acids in fossils could survive for millions of years, thus providing scientists with a key tool for analyzing fossil remains. Abelson remained at Carnegie through 1985, having served as both director and president of the Geophysical Laboratory. Concurrently, from 1962 until 1984, he was editor of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) journal, Science, proving himself to be as able an editor as he was a scientific researcher. Abelson doubled the journal's circulation during his tenure, while ensuring that the publication remained cutting edge in its content. He also became known as a writer who did not shy away from debate in his editorials. Most notably, Abelson was in the news for criticizing the United States' efforts to explore space with manned missions (he was a NASA consultant from 1960 to 1963). It was Abelson's view that such pursuits were vainglorious and did not serve science while at the same time risking lives. After stepping down as editor of Science, but staying on as deputy editor for engineering and applied science there, Abelson spent his remaining years in several other capacities, including as science advisor to the AAAS and as an advisory council member to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Eligible in several categories, but choosing to enter in the geology division, Abelson was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 1959; he was the recipient of numerous honors, including the Mellon Award from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1970, the Distinguished Public Service Award from the National Science Foundation in 1984, the President's National Medal of Science and the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Science in 1987 and 1992 respectively, the Vannevar Bush public service award from the National Science Foundation in 1996, and several honorary doctorates. The editor of a number of scholarly books, Abelson, who was recognized for his ability to write about difficult scientific subjects so that lay readers could understand them, was also the author of such works as Energy for Tomorrow (1975), Health Care: Regulation, Economics, Ethics, Practice (1978), and Enough of Pessimism: 100 Essays (1985).



Chicago Tribune, August 9, 2004, section 1, p. 11.

New York Times, August 8, 2004, p. A27.

Washington Post, August 8, 2004, p. C11.