Washington State University will honor two of its most prestigious, internationally recognized science alumni, Philip and Neva Abelson, on Friday, Sept. 6, when Science Hall is renamed for the couple.
The naming of Abelson Hall was suggested by faculty from the College of Science and recommended for Board of Regents’ action by President V. Lane Rawlins.
Philip Abelson, 89, a nuclear research pioneer and an avid promoter of scientific research, received the university’s first Regents’ Distinguished Alumni Award in 1962. Neva, who codeveloped a critical blood factor test that is used worldwide, received the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1989. Neva died earlier this year.
But the Abelson saga at WSU began many years earlier. In fact, it began before Philip Abelson was born.
A saga begins
In 1905, his parents, Ellen and Olaf Abelson, resided in a house located on the site that is now home to Fulmer Hall, WSU’s chemistry building. Ellen attended class at WSU for several years prior to starting a family. Olaf earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1909, before beginning work as an engineer on Grand Coulee Dam. He earned a professional degree in civil engineering from WSU in 1926.
A few years later, Philip followed in his father’s footsteps, enrolling at WSU, where he met Neva and earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1933 and a master’s degree in physics in 1935. Neva earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1934, two years before the couple married. In addition, Philip’s brother, Harold, graduated in civil engineering from WSU in 1934.
Philip went on to earn his doctoral degree from the University of California at Berkeley. During his studies there, he worked with Ernest Lawrence, a pioneer in nuclear science for whom the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories is named. At that time, they were experimenting with atomic accelerators and identifying the parts of an atom.
That research later led to the discovery and production of enriched uranium, used in the first atomic bombs, which allowed the United States to end World War II. In the following years, Philip played a leadership role in the development of the nuclear submarine.
Philip was selected as president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s prominent science research centers. He later became the long-time editor of “Science,” one of the nation’s premiere science magazines, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (See www.sciencemag.org and www.aaas.org.)
Today, Philip works daily at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. AAAS is the world’s largest “general science” society.
Originally from Missouri, Neva Abelson was one of the first women to graduate with a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University. She also was the first pediatrician placed in charge of Johns Hopkins Hospital nurseries. Later, working in Boston, she codeveloped a single test for the Rh blood factor. This discovery has resulted in safer blood transfusions and has saved the lives of millions of adults and infants.
The saga continues
The Abelson family’s impressive scientific background doesn’t end with Philip and Neva. Their daughter, Ellen A. Cherniavsky, holds a Ph.D. in operations research from Cornell University and is a senior engineer in the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development with MITRE, a corporation providing systems engineering, research and development, and information technology support to the government.
Their nephew is John Abelson, who earned a degree in physics from WSU in 1960, and is now a California Institute of Technology professor emeritus. John’s wife is geneticist Christine Guthrie, professor of biochemistry at the University of California San Francisco. The WSU Abelson Family Lecture, was funded by their endowed gift. The lecture series honors members of his family, many of whom are closely linked to WSU.
John’s brother, LeRoy Abelson (WSU 1965), and his father, the late Harold Abelson (WSU 1934), are both WSU engineering graduates and respected professional civil engineers.
Amazing tradition honored
Now, nearly 100 years after taking out a homestead claim, Olaf and Ellen Abelson’s family name will be memorialized as the university changes the title of Science Hall to Abelson Hall, in honor of the accomplishments of their son and daughter-in-law.
A public naming ceremony, featuring a presentation by Philip Abelson, is set for 2 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6, outside on the west end of Science Hall, which originally opened in 1935, the year he completed his master’s degree in physics. The hall was remodeled in 1983 and 1988.
The ceremony will follow a WSU Board of Regents meeting during which the name change will be officially approved.
“The impetus for naming the building Philip and Neva Abelson Hall came from the university’s science faculty, who want to honor the Abelsons for their scientific accomplishments as well as their loyalty to, and support of, Washington State University,” said President Rawlins.
“The Abelsons have been great friends of WSU and the sciences at the university,” said Leon J. Radziemski, recently retired dean of the WSU College of Sciences. “The careers of many students have been enriched by them. For example, because of the Philip and Neva Abelson fellowships, talented graduate students are able to attend to their studies and to have some of the weight of their financial concerns lifted.
“Philip is an amazing man with great discipline,” said Radziemski, who tries to meet with Abelson whenever he travels to Washington, D.C. “He has a lot of prestige in the field of science. Whenever we have lunch at the Cosmos Club (a distinguished science club in Washington, D.C.), he is consistently recognized by a lot of other scientific leaders.”
Despite his many accomplishments and positions, Radziemski said, Abelson is “a very modest, humble man, often poking fun at himself. He is a very critical thinker, who is single-minded and dedicated. And, even at 89 years old, he still takes pride in maintaining physical health. Last time I talked with him, he said he had run 4 – 5 miles every day for the past 853 days.”
Abelson’s longevity has allowed him to participate in and complete many projects and to assume numerous roles in his field, said Radziemski, who now works as a program officer with Research Corporation in Arizona. “He has moved from being a very competent scientist, making an impact in both chemistry and physics, to being a positive force in the infrastructure of science.
“As president of the Carnegie Institution and editor of ‘Science’ magazine, he has influenced the fields that have received support and national media attention. It has been a life of both accomplishment and integrity.”