Marshak, Robert E. (Robert Eugene), 1916-1992

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1916-10-11
Death 1992-12-23
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

American educator; president, City College, City University of New York, 1970-1979.

From the description of Robert Eugene Marshak papers, 1970-1985. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 754872077

Physicist (sub-atomic particles) and educator. Died in 1992.

From the description of Oral history interview with Robert Marshak, 1970. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 81515112

Physicist (sub-atomic particles) and educator. A. B., Columbia University (1936); Ph. D., Cornell University (1939); instructor and Professor of physics, University of Rochester (1939-1970); President of City College, City University of New York (1970-1979); University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (1979-1986); Chairman, Federation of American Scientists (1947-1948); president, American Physical Society (1983-1984). Recipient of the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize (1982) for his work on nuclear forces and of the Clark Kerr Award (1987) for contributions to the advancement of higher education.

From the description of Papers, 1947-1988. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 78961592

Physicist (sub-atomic particles) and educator. A. B., Columbia University (1936); Ph. D., Cornell University (1939); instructor and Professor of physics, University of Rochester (1939-1970); president of City College, City University of New York (1970-1979); University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (1979-1986); Chairman, Federation of American Scientists (1947-1948); president, American Physical Society (1983-1984). Recipient of the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize (1982) for his work on nuclear forces and of the Clark Kerr Award (1987) for contributions to the advancement of higher education.

From the description of Addition to papers, 1952-1992. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 82863632

Biographical/Historical Note

American educator; president, City College, City University of New York, 1970-1979.

From the guide to the Robert Eugene Marshak papers, 1970-1985, (Hoover Institution Archives)

Robert E. Marshak was born in 1916 in the Bronx, a borough of New York City. Marshak's academic ability was recognized early, and despite their poverty, his family encouraged his studies. As a result, he finished James Monroe High School at the age of 15. From high school, he enrolled in the City College of New York (CCNY), a tuition-free university that served as an exit from poverty for generations of immigrants. After one semester at CCNY, he received a Pulitzer Scholarship which provided full tuition and a stipend which allowed him to continue his education at Columbia University. College appears to have been a profound intellectual experience for Marshak. He initially majored in philosophy and math, and served as the dance critic for the school newspaper. In his senior year, he switched to physics, and came into contact with Nobel Laureate I.I. Rabi. Rabi was initially skeptical of his commitment to physics, but later became a friend.

Marshak graduated from Columbia in 1936, and went to graduate school at Cornell University via a fellowship. At Cornell, he studied with Hans Bethe, who at the time was working on problems pertaining to energy production in stars, which later won Bethe a Nobel Prize. Marshak wrote his dissertation on energy production in white dwarf stars. His basic conclusion was confirmed about forty years later when the white dwarf orbiting Sirius came into view. He completed his Ph.D. degree in 1939 at the age of 22.

Jobs were hard to come by in the late 1930s, especially for Jewish scientists for whom positions were limited by quotas. Marshak nonetheless was able to get a one- year, non- renewable position at the University of Rochester. Here he met, among other notables, Victor Weiskopf, the future director of CERN, the nuclear accelerator facility in Geneva, Switzerland. During this time a tenure-track position opened in the Physics Department at Rochester which Marshak received.

Teaching at the University of Rochester was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Marshak became involved in the war effort, as did many scientists at the time. Initially, he worked on developing radar in Boston, Massachusetts, then on the British atomic bomb project in Montreal, Canada. In 1943, Marshak married Ruth Gup, a school teacher in Rochester. Later he joined the Manhattan Project which was developing the American atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. At Los Alamos, Marshak was a deputy group leader in theoretical physics, a rank which allowed him to be privy to the overall strategy of atomic bomb creation.

After the war, Marshak returned to the University of Rochester, where he moved quickly through the ranks. He become a chair professor (the Harris chair) and the head of the physics department in the 1950s. He was very active as a researcher, and was a participant at the famous Shelter Island Conference where he proposed the two-meson theory. During his fourteen year chairmanship the Physics Department at Rochester became one of the top 10 in the country, and a recognized center for advanced research in physics.

During his years at the University of Rochester, Marshak became intensely interested in international science. He felt that scientific cooperation was an important first step in the quest for global peace. In 1956, he was a member of the first delegation of approximately six American scientists to visit the USSR after the death of Stalin. Marshak met the leaders of the Soviet Physics community, including Lev Landau. He made more trips to the USSR during the 1950s (US State Department debriefings after these trips are in the files), and became an acknowledged expert on Soviet science.

During the 1950s, Marshak established the "Rochester Conference", considered by his colleagues to be one of his most significant achievements. The conference evolved over the years into "The International Conference on High-Energy Physics." The Rochester Conference was instrumental in bringing together scientists from around the world, and served as a model for the establishment of international conferences in other fields. One of the most challenging aspects of the early conferences was the attempt to bring real Eastern European and Soviet physicists (as opposed to KGB agents) to the meetings. This effort required Marshak to carry out intense negotiations with the US State Department and with members of Congress. His other involvement in international science included participation in the establishment of the International Center of Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, and the International Foundation for Science in Sweden.

Events at the University of Rochester received lots of publicity, and brought Marshak to the attention of the search committee looking for a new president for CCNY. They approached him with an offer to become president, just at a time when his social conscience had been roused. He accepted the offer and became CCNY President just at a time when the college was undergoing a vast change in demographics.

Typical of Marshak, he put his full effort into the struggle to redefine the college and bring it through these crises. In addition to improving the quality of several departments, he established important new programs such as the Biomedical Center and the Legal Center, raised the funds for a new performing arts center (the Leonard Davis Center), and pushed through the construction of a 150 million dollar academic complex. He also became involved in the debate about national educational policy and "Science and Public Policy", delivering many speeches on the subject. He also served on the board of directors for Harlem Hospital and for Colonial Penn Insurance Company. In the end, the success of his efforts was recognized by the naming of the 14-story science building on campus after him. The stress of his position at CCNY took a toll on his health, and he suffered a minor stroke during a confrontation with a student group. The stroke effected his balance for the remainder of his life.

After nine years at CCNY, his desire to return to physics led him to accept an offer as University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, and he and Ruth moved to Blacksburg in 1979. During this period, he became President of the American Physical Society, the principle organization of physicists in the United States. Typical of his modus operandi, he took an activist approach to the job, using the weight of the society to debate the Reagan Administration on the issue of placing an anti-ballistic missile system into space, popularly known as "Star Wars."

Marshak officially retired as a professor at the age of 75. During the last five years of his life, he worked intensely on a book, entitled Conceptual Foundations of Modern Particle Physics . He finished the final corrections on the manuscript the day before he died. When he dropped the manuscript in the mailbox, he turn to his wife and said, in a joking voice, "It's done. Now I can die." The next day, December 23, 1992, he did. Minutes after the family convened in Cancun, Mexico, to celebrate Marshak's fiftieth wedding anniversary, he took the grandchildren down to the beach to enjoy the last hours of a sunny, windy afternoon. While the children played on the beach, he stepped into the warm water of the Gulf. The undertow was unexpectedly strong, and he apparently lost his balance. He fell into the water, couldn't stand up, and drowned.

A lengthy biography of Marshak is available on the Special Collections website: http://spec.lib.vt.edu/marshk/bio.htm .

From the guide to the Working Inventory of the Robert E. Marshak Papers, 1947-1990, (Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.)

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Subjects:

  • Science and technology
  • Physics--Study and teaching
  • Education
  • faculty
  • Science and civilization
  • Particle accelerators
  • Science--International cooperation
  • Nuclear energy
  • Cyclotrons
  • Particles (Nuclear physics)
  • Mesons
  • Education--United States
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute
  • Federal aid to research
  • University Archives
  • Nuclear physics--Congresses
  • Physics
  • White dwarf stars
  • Soviet Union--Foreign relations--United States
  • Weak interactions (Nuclear physics)
  • Defense contracts
  • Nuclear physics
  • World War, 1939-1945--Science
  • Astrophysics
  • Communication in physics
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Occupations:

  • Physicists--United States

Places:

  • United States (as recorded)
  • Soviet Union (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)