Fowler was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Lima, Ohio. After completing an undergraduate degree in physics at Ohio State University, he pursued graduate studies on radioactive elements of low atomic numbers at the California Institute of Technology, receiving his Ph.D. in 1936. He maintained his association with Caltech's Kellogg Laboratory for most of his career, becoming institute professor of physics in 1970, a position he held until his retirement in 1982.
Fowler's research focused on nuclear physics and nuclear astrophysics, specifically on studies of fusion reactions. During World War II, he was instrumental in the development of military proximity fuses, rocket and torpedo ordnance, and atomic weapons, for which he was awarded the government's Medal of Merit in 1948.
But it was his co-authorship of a 1957 seminal paper on the synthesis of the elements in stars that brought Fowler the greatest recognition. The paper helped create a basic model of star development by demonstrating that nuclear processes in stars could manufacture all the elements, starting with just the hydrogen and helium produced in the Big Bang. Fowler shared the 1983 Nobel Prize with Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar for his work in this area, which was described by the Royal Swedish Academy at the presentation ceremony as "a complete theory for the formation of the chemical elements of the universe."
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