APS News

The Back Page

Discovering Our Roots: The PhD Lineage Contest Winners

Most frequently cited forbears: J. J. Thomson and Ernest B. Rutherford
Most frequently cited forbears: J. J. Thomson and Ernest B. Rutherford

Last March, APS News announced a PhD lineage contest, in which entrants were asked to trace their professional "family tree" - i.e., the production of doctoral level physicists by their thesis advisors - as far back as possible. We received many entries, often containing fascinating historical details, and were impressed at the considerable effort expended by certain members to trace their academic lineage. In many cases, the submissions included substantial, detailed commentary based on exhaustive research.

The further back in time our amateur geneologists went, the more blurred the lines between the disciplines became. Chemists, mathematicians, medical doctors, and apothecaries appear regularly prior to the 19th century, along with geologists involved with mining concerns. Those APS members strongly rooted in chemistry had something of an unfair advantage, thanks to an established tradition of tracking intellectual lineage in chemistry. Many can track their ancestry back to such 18th-century luminaries as Claude-Louis Berthollet and Antoine Lavoisier. In the spirit of professional inclusion, the judges did not quibble as to whether a lineage was strictly in "physics," provided the submission was made by an APS member.

Similarly, the further one moved from the 19th century, the more fuzzy became the definition of what constitutes a "PhD thesis advisor." [One entrant listed his ultimate ancestor as "God," but this was deemed inadmissible since everyone knows that God does not even have tenure, never mind a PhD.] Many entrants surmounted these obstacles by counting personages more aptly described as mentors or major influences as part of their intellectual family tree. And who are we to discount their claims, provided they can supply sufficient evidence to support their argument?

The Winner's Circle

Earliest Ancestry Steven Sibener, University of Chicago
Earliest U.S. Ancestry Michael Gerver, MIT
Most "Generations" Robert Lanier, Livermore National Lab
Earliest Date/Fewest Generations David Lockwood, National Research Council of Canada
Shortest Lineage George Snow, University of Maryland
Most "Nobel" Lineage (tie) Martin Perl, Stanford University
E. Raymond Andrew, University of Florida, Gainesville
Most Cited Forebears (tie) J.J. Thomson and Ernest B. Rutherford


Earliest Ancestry
The geneology dating back the furthest was submitted by Steven Sibener of the University of Chicago. The chart spans as many as 22 "generations" (depending on the "fork" one follows) and eventually dates to back to Pelope who taught in Padua in 1453. It was created as a 60th birthday present to Sibener's advisor, Yuan T. Lee, and includes several as forks from the primary lineage. In fact, the oldest fork dating back to Pelope leads not to Lee, but directly to Dudley Herschbach of Harvard University, with whom Lee shared the 1986 Nobel Prize, along with John Polanyi. [See http://www.scs.uiuc.edu/~mainzv/Web_Geneology]

Michael Gerver of MIT placed a close second, tracing his academic lineage back to Johann Georg Magnus, a medical doctor in Germany in the early 1500s. A secondary lineage reaches back to Adam Spencer, who lectured regularly on science in Boston in the early 1720s and was a primary influence on the (largely informal) scientific development of Benjamin Franklin. Robert Lanier, a chemical engineer at Livermore National Laboratory, traced his lineage back to Paracelsus (early 1500s), tying for second place, while Richard Register of Princeton University traced his roots back to the 1640s. However, Gerver certainly wins for tracing his lineage back the furthest within the U.S.

David Lockwood of Canada's National Research Council had the earliest date (1719) with the fewest generations (8). His lineage dates back to a German mathematician/astronomer named Abraham Kastner who taught at universities in Leipzig and Gottingen. Michael Hilke of Princeton University placed a close second, tracing his lineage back to the 1770s within 9 generations.

Most "Generations"
The clear winner in this category is Lanier, whose chemist ancestors go back 24 generations, but Sibener's 22 generations qualified him for a close second. Gerver, with 19 generations in his primary lineage, placed third. Among the runners-up, Register and Rick Strickert of Radian International in Austin, Texas, each had 15 generations dating back to Christolphe Glaser, an MD in Basel, Switzerland, who is generally credited with the education of N. Lemery, a Paris apothecary in the late 1600s. Louis Grace of Livermore National Laboratory had 14 generations dating back to Lavoisier. George Snow of the University of Maryland deserves special mention for submitting the shortest possible lineage: his thesis advisor was Eugene Wigner - who won the 1963 Nobel Prize for mapping the structure of the atom and its nucleus - and Snow apparently felt no need to trace his heritage further.

Most "Nobel" Lineage
Several of those who submitted geneologies had three Nobel Laureates among their direct intellectual ancestry, making it difficult to choose a clear-cut winner, but we eventually decided on a tie. Martin Perl of Stanford University had a mere three generations in his lineage, but every one is a Nobel laureate: Isidor Rabi, Perl himself, and Perl's student, Samuel Ting. [This no doubt places considerable pressure on the generation of students under Ting.] E. Raymond Andrew of the University of Florida, Gainesville, also counts three successive Nobelists among his five generations of ancestors: Joseph J. Thomson (who discovered the electron), Ernest B. Rutherford, and Pyotr Kapitza. In addition, he was mentored as a postdoctoral fellow by another Nobelist, Edward Purcell.

Others who can claim three "Nobel" ancestors certainly deserve honorable mention. Charles Slichter of the University of Illinois is another descendent of Thomson and Purcell, as well as Nobelist Owen Richardson. Matthew Walhout of Calvin College descends from Rabi, Norman Ramsey, and William D. Phillips.

Rigoberto Hernandez's Nobel Trinity includes Linus Pauling, honored once in chemistry in 1954 and again in 1962, when he won the Nobel Peace Prize. The third is 1909 Nobelist Friedrich Ostwald, widely considered to be the father of American physical chemists. Grace also descends from Pauling, as well as Herschbach. Hilke can lay claim to two Nobel laureates among his academic ancestry: Wolfgang Pauli, who won in 1945, and Wilhelm Roentgen, who won the very first Nobel physics prize awarded in 1901. Carlo W.J. Beenakker of Leiden University, The Netherlands, descends from 1913 Nobelist Heike Onnes, while a secondary fork links him to 1902 Nobelist Pieter Zeeman.

Most Cited Forebears
Many of our amateur geneologists with roots in England counted Rutherford and/or Thomson among their intellectual ancestors. In fact, the two might be considered the founding fathers of modern physics PhDs in England. As such, we honor them posthumously for being the forebears most frequently mentioned in our geneological contest submissions. Significantly lacking among the various submitted lineages were such giants as Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, or Richard Feynman. We're not sure if this is because they mentored fewer students, or because their intellectual descendents simply don't have the time or inclination to enter geneological contests.

Other Notable Ancestry
Of course, ancestors don't have to be Nobel laureates in order to be distinguished. Gerver's lineage includes such illustrious figures as Percy Bridgman, Gustav Kirchhoff, Joseph Priestley, and Franklin. Brian Garris and Nikolaos Kidonakis traced their line back 11 generations to William Hopkins, a Cambridge professor in the 1820s, and count James Clerk Maxwell, George Stokes, and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) among their ancestors.

Even so-called "rank and file" names are rendered illustrious with the passage of time. Gerver found that the earliest names in his lineage had much more extensive entries in The Dictionary of Scientific Biography (DSB). "They made important contributions, not so much in scientific discoveries, but in organization and institution building," he wrote, which no doubt accounted for their more numerous descendents. "And many of the discoveries that they did make, although not as dramatic as the discoveries of Newton, Maxwell, Einstein or Bohr, were necessary in order for the 'big' discoveries to be made."

One of Gerver's more fascinating forebears was Guener Rolfincke, who received his MD from the University of Padua in 1625 and became a professor of anatomy, surgery and botany at the University of Jena. He is best known for building the first anatomical theatre there, giving controversial lectures on dissection using the bodies of recently executed criminals (a practice known locally as "Rolfincking" for a time). He was the first German to teach Harvey's theory of blood circulation, and the first to demonstrate that cataracts were located in the lens of the eye; he also trained 104 doctoral candidates.

Rolfincke's student, Georg Wedel, was an MD whose views hovered curiously between the medieval and modern worlds. Unlike his mentor, Wedel defended astrology, alchemy, and iatrochemistry (the application of chemistry to medicine, based on medieval concepts), influencing an entire generation of physicians in the late 1600s. Priestley was the first to give a detailed published account of Franklin's kite and lightning experiment in 1767, and was an ardent supporter of the colonists during the American Revolution, emigrating to the U.S. in 1794 after an angry Tory mob destroyed his house and laboratory.

Ralph H. Fowler, who taught at Cambridge in the 1930s, married Rutherford's only daughter, and first introduced Dirac to quantum theory by providing him with the galley proofs of Heinsenberg's famous "matrix article" of 1925, which led to Dirac's discovery of Poisson-bracket relations. Fowler's student, John E. Lennard- Jones was actually born Jones, but changed his name after marrying Kathleen Mary Lennard in 1925. Originally from Germany, Edward L. Nichols was a postdoc at Johns Hopkins under the first APS president, Henry Rowland, and served as an assistant to Thomas Edison in his work on electric lighting.

APS News thanks everyone who submitted geneologies for this contest. Without the diligent efforts of the APS members who took the time to rummage in the musty, disorganized files of history, our readership might never have heard such colorful details, which only serve to enhance our sense of physics history.



©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette