Philip Abelson, distinguished scientist, dies at age 91

Former Carnegie Institution president and Washington State University physics alumnus Philip Abelson died Aug. 1 in Bethesda, Md. at the age of 91.

The first recipient (in 1962) of the WSU Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award, and a recipient of a WSU Foundation Outstanding Service Award, Abelson was perhaps best known as a scientist for his co-discovery of neptunium (element 93) and a method he devised for large-scale enrichment of uranium for use as a power source in submarines, leading to the construction of the world’s first atomic submarine.

A Tacoma native and graduate of Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, Abelson earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1933 and master’s degree in physics in 1935, both from WSU. In 1939, he earned a doctorate in nuclear physics from the University of California, Berkeley. His scientific interests were wide-ranging, and he made contributions in chemistry, physics, biochemistry, geophysics and medicine.

“Dr. Abelson is clearly one of the most distinguished graduates in the history of Washington State University,” said WSU President V. Lane Rawlins. “He maintained contact with the university and was helpful to generations of our faculty and students. WSU will miss Phil. In fact, the whole world will miss Phil. He was a great scientist and human being.”
During the Manhattan Project, Abelson worked in uranium separation processing, fission products identification and was instrumental in the development of the nuclear submarine. He served as president of the Carnegie Institution from 1971 to 1978.

His scientific contributions spanned more than 40 years with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world. His positions of leadership and his service on many national advisory committees enabled him to shape national science and technology policy. For 22 years, he was editor of AAAS’s Science magazine, where he served as editor emeritus until his death.

Nationally, Abelson has been honored with many major awards. He received the President’s National Medal of Science, a Distinguished Public Service Award from the National Science Foundation and the Science Achievement Award from the American Medical Association. In 1945, he received the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal.

Abelson’s wife, Neva, herself a WSU graduate, also was an outstanding scientist. She was one of the first women to graduate with a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and is most noted as a co-developer of a crucial test for the Rh factor in blood. A recipient of the WSU Regents Distinguished Alumnus Award and the WSU College of Sciences Distinguished Alumnus award, she died in 2000.
Philip Abelson followed his parents, Olaf and Elle Abelson to WSU. Both parents enrolled at WSU in 1905, after building a home where Fulmer Hall now stands on the Pullman campus. Following his father’s graduation with bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1909, his mother Ellen left college to give birth to Phil’s brother, Harold, and-the family moved to Tacoma, where Philip was born. Later, the young Phil Abelson graduated from Lincoln High School in two and one-half years and, with his brother Harold, came to Pullman and enrolled at WSU. Philip finished his bachelor’s degree a year ahead of his class and went on to earn his master’s in physics, even while courting his future wife and fellow chemistry student, the former Neva Martin.

Beginning in 1990 Neva and Philip Abelson built graduate fellowship endowments that have provided funding for many WSU sciences students each year. In 2001, Philip Abelson also initiated the Paul Anderson Distinguished Professorship of Physics endowment. He also established a graduate fellowship in the College of Liberal Arts in memory of his mother.

“Phil Abelson made major contributions to scientific discovery and to leadership of the scientific community,” said Michael Griswold, dean of the WSU College of Sciences. “He has been a close friend to the College of Sciences and he will be missed.”

In 2002, WSU renamed the former Science Hall building as Abelson Hall in honor of Abelson and his wife, considered two of the university’s most prestigious, internationally recognized science alumni.

“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,” President Rawlins said at the time of the building’s rededication ceremony.

The Abelsons are survived by their daughter, Ellen A. Cherniavsky, Silver Spring, Md., a senior engineer in the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development with MITRE Corp and nephews John N. Abelson, San Francisco, 1960 WSU graduate and California Institute of Technology biology professor emeritus, and LeRoy Abelson, a 1965 graduate of WSU and retired attorney from Hermosa Beach, Calif. They are also survived by two grandchildren.

President Rawlins has been invited to take part in a memorial service for Abelson in Washington D.C. later this year.

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