Pegram, George Braxton

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(b. Trinity, North Carolina, 24 October 1876; d. Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, 12 August 1958)

physics academic administration.

Pegram was one of five children of William Howell Pegram, professor of chemistry at Trinity College (later Duke University) and Emma Craven Pegram, daughter of the college’s founder. His upbringing left him with a taste for methodical work and the friendly, soft-spoken demeanor of a Southerner, a manner that served him well in the many positions of trust he came to hold. After taking his bachelor’s degree at Trinity in 1895. Pegram worked as a high school teacher and then, in 1899, went to Columbia University. In 1900 he became a teaching assistant in physics and began a steady advance up the academic ladder, with a doctorate in physics in 1903 and an instructorship in 1905, achieving full professorship in 1918. Despite attractive offers he spent his entire career at Columbia.

Pegram’s career was centered on administration. He became executive officer of the department of physics in 1913 and continued to head the department until 1945. In 1917 he was named acting dean, and in 1918 dean, of the Faculty of Applied Sciences. He resigned in 1930, hoping to return to research, but in 1936 was called to serve as dean of graduate faculties, a post he held until 1949. Professional organizations also claimed Pegram’s time. He was treasurer (1918–1957) and president (1941) of the American Physical Society; treasurer (1917–1949) and president (1949–1951) of Sigma Xi; and both secretary (1931–1945) and treasurer (1938–1956) of the American Institute of Physics.

Pegram remained active after going into semiretirement in the mid 1950’s. With all his responsibilities he had little time for scientific research; it was as a master of budgets and committees that he made an indelible mark on the American physics community.

Pegram’s doctoral dissertation, “Secondary Radioactivity in the Electrolysis of Thorium Solutions,” led him into the popular new field of radiation measurements, and over the next decade he and others at Columbia ran a brisk sideline business checking the radioactivity of ores, mineral waters, and supposedly therapeutic potions. Pegram’s chance to learn more advanced science came in 1907, when a Tyndall fellowship enabled him to study at European physics laboratories, notably those in Cambridge and Berlin. During his travels he met Florence Bement; they were married on 3 June 1909 and had two sons.

Pegram had published little research when he moved into administration, and except for helping to organize submarine detection studies during World War I, he did no more science until the 1930-1936 hiatus in his deanships. That was a good period to return to work: the neutron had been discovered (1932), and nuclear physics had burs out of its tradition of passive radioactivity measurements. Pegram joined forces with John R. Dunning and other young members of the Physics Department, making them discuss their ideas and contributing many of his own, turning up in the laboratories at any hour of the day or night. He signed some thirty papers and short notes, always in collaboration, and participated in much other work he did not sign. The papers reported a variety of painstaking measurements on the absorption and scattering of neutrons, particularly slow neutrons, and established an important body of facts.

Columbia was becoming a world center for nuclear research, and Pegram helped to advance this reputation, not only in the area of research but also in administration. Already in 1926 he had moved the physics department into a tall new building. In the 1930’s he raised funds to build a cyclotron and attracted and encouraged a brilliant group of scientists, including Harold Urey, I. I. Rabi, and Enrico Fermi.

After the discovery of uranium fission (1939), when Fermi and others launched the effort that would lead to the first nuclear reactor, they turned to Pegram for organizational help and advice. In March 1939 he sent Adm. S. C. Hooper, chairman of the Naval Research Committee, the first letter any government body received from a scientist suggesting work on the release of nuclear energy. As the work unfolded, he took a prominent role on the National Defense Research Council’s Advisory Committee on Uranium, which laid the foundations for the Manhattan Project. At the same time he chaired Columbia’s Committee on War Research, overseeing such work as the establishment of the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Sound Research Laboratory, birthplace of a magnetic airborne detector that helped clear the Atlantic of German submarines. For a decade after the war, Pegram continued to be deeply involved in the university’s relations with military research. At the same time he quietly opposed excessive reliance on nuclear weapons.

It is hard to evaluate Pegram’s impact on Columbia as graduate dean, as vice president (1949-1950), and as friend and adviser to the university’s presidents. But “Dean Pegram”, as everyone called him, probably accomplished much behind the scenes with his ability to remain calm through divisive committee meetings, his mastery of budgets, and his talent for getting others to do what was needed.

Pegram’s influence within the physics community is more obvious. By the 1930’s he was one of the half-dozen elder statesmen of the American Physical Society, the men who had to be consulted before any new steps were taken and who usually initiated such steps. Most significant was Pegram’s founding, with Karl T. Compton and a few others, of the American Institute of Physics (1931). The constitution, bylaws, and traditions of this federation of societies, crafted by Pegram more than anyone else, gave physics a professional administrative apparatus and a coherent public role that would become the envy of other disciplines.

Brookhaven National Laboratory was another institution born in discussions at Columbia, and again Pegram was a founding board member, serving as trustee of Brookhaven’s parent organization, Associated Universities, Inc. He was also trustee of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies, and served the American Physical Society and Sigma Xi, as well as many other professional societies.


I. Original Works. Pegram’s papers are at Columbia University.

II. Secondary Literature. A memoir by Lee Anna Embrey is in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 41 (1970), 357-407, with bibliography; one by Karl K. Darrow is in Yearbook of the American Philosophical Society (1961), 152-158.

Spencer R. Weart