Ajzenberg-Selove, Fay (1926—)

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Ajzenberg-Selove, Fay (1926—)

German-born American nuclear physicist. Name variations: Aisenberg. Born in Berlin in 1926; daughter of Moisei Abramovich Aisenberg and Olga (Naiditch) Aisenberg; married Walter Selove.

Escaping a certain death in Europe in 1940, Ajzenberg-Selove began studying physics in the United States, the only woman in her class; with a collaborator, produced an immensely valuable annual compilation, Energy Levels of Light Nuclei; first woman elected to a leadership position in the American Physical Society; forced to sue to obtain a full professorship at the University of Pennsylvania; author of many scientific articles and an autobiography, A Matter of Choices: Memoirs of a Female Physicist.

In 1926, Fay Ajzenberg was born in Berlin. Both of her parents were Jews who had fled Soviet Russia soon after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Her father, Moisei Abramovich Aisenberg, born in Warsaw, Russian Poland, climbed out of extreme poverty by being, in the words of his admiring daughter, "tough, smart and adaptable." He studied mining engineering at the St. Petersburg Mining Academy and spoke several languages other than Polish and Russian, including German, French, and English. Fay's mother, Olga Naiditch, was born in Pinsk into a wealthy Russian-Jewish family. Although musically educated—she was a mezzo-soprano and pianist—Olga never pursued a career. Beautiful and highly emotional, Olga Aisenberg was often engaged in noisy conflicts with her husband, and Fay was much closer to her father. Despite what has been described as a psychologically unstable home environment, Fay's talents were encouraged by her father, who had become a successful manager of a sugar refinery in Lieusaint, a small town 20 miles south of Paris. He prompted his daughter to be intellectually independent as well as confident and open-minded. Fay grew up assuming that she would one day have an engineering career. She resolved to emulate the feats of Amelia Earhart and to "live a life that I would not regret as I lay dying."

As Jews, Fay and her parents were threatened by the rise of Nazism in Germany. The May 1940 German invasion of Belgium and France transformed their lives. They fled to Brittany, then to Toulouse, and then out of immediate danger to Lisbon, Portugal. On several occasions, Fay, an attractive teenager, used her language skills and lively personality to convince authorities to add her family to the short list of those authorized to leave the war zone. Along their path of escape, she and her parents slept in cars and underground garages. They were briefly jailed, stood in lines with frightened refugees waiting for food, and were dismayed to discover that their bodies were infested by lice. German warplanes strafed them, adding to their terror. Finally the Aisenbergs arrived in Cuba, which they soon left for New York.

Once in America, Fay changed her name from Aisenberg to Ajzenberg. Grateful to have escaped the killing fields of Europe, she was determined to succeed academically, enrolling as an engineering student at the University of Michigan. She was the only woman in a class of 100 men. Although sometimes treated like a younger sister, Ajzenberg generally held her own. Her grades in her physics courses were mediocre, but she found the subject intriguing and intellectually stimulating. A summer spent at the cosmic ray observatories in the European Alps (she was the first woman to work at these research facilities) convinced her that physics, not engineering, would be her life's work.

After completing some courses at Columbia University, Ajzenberg enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She earned her doctorate in 1952 and was confronted by the dual problem of finding a job as a woman physicist in a poor job market. Ajzenberg considered herself fortunate to get a one-year position at Smith College and began her research career by commuting between Smith and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she worked at the Van de Graaff Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most important, she began to collaborate with Thomas Lauritsen of the California Institute of Technology. Together, they produced an immensely valuable annual compilation, Energy Levels of Light Nuclei, which appeared in a number of professional journals, primarily in Nuclear Physics, for several decades. These annual reviews presented the best of the year's research on the energy levels of nuclei. Yale University physicist D. Allan Bromley has praised these review articles as "the nuclear scientists' bibles."

Hoping to move from temporary to permanent work, Ajzenberg applied for a tenured position at Boston University. Here, she quickly discovered the sexist nature of academic life in the 1950s when the dean of the university cut the already agreed-upon salary by 15% after he learned that the new faculty member was a woman. Infuriated, Ajzenberg was joined by the chair of her department, and the egregious pay cut was rescinded. At this time, one of her friends, Marietta Bohr , told Ajzenberg that she should consider marriage; Bohr also said that a suitable partner was already available for her—a physicist at Harvard University, Walter Selove. But the difficulties that a married female physicist would likely face on the career path were pointed out at a meeting of the American Physical Society. The noted physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer invited Ajzenberg to her room and, after pouring her a stiff scotch, told her: "While it is hard to be a woman physicist, it is almost impossible to be a married woman physicist." Goeppert-Mayer gave this advice not only in light of deep-seated prejudice but also because of rigidly enforced nepotism rules. Ajzenberg refused to be discouraged, however, and continued her relationship with Walter Selove. Their marriage in 1955 became a successful, mutually supportive partnership. Walter eventually discovered a particle that he named for Fay, the f-zero, known among their friends as the faon.

Fay and Walter managed dual careers acceptably. She took a tenured position at Haverford College while he became an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Fay loved teaching at Haverford despite some signs of gender discrimination that probably slowed down her promotion. In 1964, she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for a year's research at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Uncomfortable with the politicization of academic life at Haverford, Ajzenberg-Selove accepted an untenured position at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970. During this same time, she underwent surgery for breast cancer. Despite the setback, she organized the first session ever scheduled by the American Physical Society on women in physics, a meeting that began the process of sensitizing the physics community to the issue of gender discrimination. She was also the first woman elected to a leadership position in the American Physical Society.

In 1972, the University of Pennsylvania physics department announced it would hire three new tenured physicists. Knowing her credentials to be strong, Ajzenberg-Selove applied for one of these positions and was shocked and disappointed when her colleagues voted against her, citing "inadequate research publications" and age (at 46, she was evidently "too old" for the position) as reasons for her rejection. The charge that she was no longer an active scientist was absurd—with the exception of her Penn physics department colleague J. Robert Schrieffer (a Nobel laureate), she had more publication citations than any other department member.

Several months later, Ajzenberg-Selove was elected chair of the division of nuclear physics of the American Physical Society. Determined not to bow to blatant discrimination, she lodged complaints with the Federal Equal Opportunity Commission as well as the Pennsylvania State Human Relations Commission. In due course, the discriminatory actions of her colleagues were exposed and the university was required to offer her a tenured professorship in physics, retroactive to July 1, 1973. She became the second female professor in the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences.

In 1982, Ajzenberg-Selove fought a new bout with breast cancer. Again, she regained her health, supported by her husband. Though she faced the threat of cancellation of the Department of Energy research grant that had enabled her to continue her Energy Levels of Light Nuclei reviews after the death of her longtime collaborator Thomas Lauritsen, outraged letters from leading scientists brought about a reversal of the negative decision. Later, she passed the responsibility for this time-consuming project to other, younger scientists. Ajzenberg-Selove's autobiography, A Matter of Choices: Memoirs of a Female Physicist (Rutger's University Press, 1994), was enthusiastically received for its candor, wit, and perspective on the life and achievements of a remarkable scientist.


Ajzenberg-Selove, Fay. A Matter of Choices: Memoirs of a Female Physicist. NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Bromley, D. Allan. "A Woman's Journey in Physics: Seldo," in Physics Today. Vol. 47, no. 7, July 1994, pp. 61–62.

Finkbeiner, Ann K. "Women Who Run With Physicists," in The Sciences. Vol. 34, no. 5, September-October 1994, pp. 40–44.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia