Uhlenbeck, George Eugène, 1900-1988

Alternative names
Birth 1900-12-06
Death 1988-10-31

Biographical notes:

Physicist, professor of physics at the University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

From the description of George Eugène Uhlenbeck papers, 1918-1981 (bulk 1925-1970). (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 84045021

From the description of George Eugène Uhlenbeck papers, 1918-1981 (bulk 1925-1970). (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 34420120

George Eugène Uhlenbeck was born on 6 December 1900, in Batavia, Java, Dutch East Indies [now Jakarta, Indonesia]. In 1907 the family returned to the Netherlands, settling permanently in the Hague.

Uhlenbeck showed an early, self-directed interest in physics, attracting the attention of his high school physics instructor. Because a Dutch law required entering university students to have training in Latin and Greek, Uhlenbeck enrolled as an engineering student at the Technische Hogeschool at Delft in September 1918. A propitious change in the law allowed him, in January 1919, to begin studies in physics and mathematics at the University of Leiden.

In 1920, Uhlenbeck began attending seminars at Leiden given by the physicist Paul Ehrenfest, who was to become his primary scientific mentor. From 1922 to 1925 he spent summers in Holland and the remainder of the year in Rome, serving as tutor for the son of J. H. van Royen, the Dutch ambassador there. While in Rome he attended mathematics courses given by Enriques, Levi-Civita, and Volterra. In 1923 he met Enrico Fermi and established a contact between Ehrenfest and Fermi that, according to Abraham Pais in an article on Uhlenbeck in the December 1989 Physics Today, proved critical to Fermi's career.

Uhlenbeck became interested in Dutch cultural history and his first publication, written in Rome, was a historical piece on Johannes Heckius. Upon his return to Holland in 1925, Uhlenbeck considered becoming a historian, establishing contact at Leiden with the influential medieval historian Johan Huizinga.

At Ehrenfest's urging, Uhlenbeck teamed up with another graduate student, Samuel Goudsmit, in the fall of 1925, a collaboration which invigorated his interest in physics. Their work in the decoding of atomic spectra led rapidly to a discovery of electron spin, which proved to be an essential building block for modern particle physics and thrust the young graduate student into the scientific spotlight.

In 1925 Uhlenbeck immigrated to the United States to join the faculty at the University of Michigan. He returned to the Netherlands from 1935 to 1939 to teach the first courses ever offered in nuclear physics at the University of Utrecht. The decade of the 1940s saw Uhlenbeck back in the United States, dividing his time between teaching responsibilities at Michigan and, from 1942 to 1945, directing classified radar research at the Radiation Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Uhlenbeck remained an important figure in physics at the University of Michigan until his 1960 move to Rockefeller University, from which he retired in 1974.

Uhlenbeck's ties with the Netherlands remained strong throughout his career. In 1954 he became the first Lorentz Visiting Professor of Physics at the University of Leiden; additionally, in 1963, he was named the first Van der Waals Visiting Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Amsterdam. In 1977 the Dutch government honored him by making him a Commander of the Order of Orange-Nassau, the highest non-military honor it can give to non-citizens.

Along with numerous honorary degrees, Uhlenbeck was awarded several medals in recognition of his contributions to the field of theoretical physics: the Max Planck medal in 1964, the Lorentz medal in 1970, and the National Medal of Science in 1977. George Eugène Uhlenbeck died on 31 October 1988, in Boulder, Colorado.

From the guide to the George Uhlenbeck Papers, 1918-1982, 1925-1970, (Bentley Historical Library University of Michigan)


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  • Relativity (Physics)
  • Complementarity (Physics)
  • Quantum theory--History
  • Physics
  • Nuclear physics
  • Physics--History
  • Atomic theory
  • National socialism and science
  • Wave mechanics


  • Physicists


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