Philip & Neva Abelson: Pioneers on the knowledge frontier
by Pat Caraher | © Washington State University
Two of Washington State University's most celebrated alumni were recognized by their alma mater in a public ceremony last September, when Science Hall on the Pullman campus was renamed for Philip H. Abelson and his late wife, Neva Martin Abelson.
During a three-day visit to WSU, Abelson met with University administrators, deans, chairs, and directors. He also checked research being conducted by graduate students in the sciences. Over the years, he and Neva have been generous supporters of WSU student scholarships.
"I really enjoyed being here," he says, pausing to reflect on his own college days in Pullman. "I had the advantage of being mentored by people who where kind to me." Those people included professors Carl Brewster, chemistry, and Paul Anderson and S. Town Stephenson, both physicists.
Abelson's parents enrolled in Washington State College in 1905. The family home was within a block of the newly named Philip and Neva Abelson Hall. His father, Olaf, received a degree as a civil engineer in 1909. Working with Olaf in his teens, young Abelson became a skilled surveyor. From his father he learned, "If there's an objective you wish to accomplish, you analyze that matter and determine what you need to know, or what you need to do to solve the problem."
A serious, eager scholar, Abelson initially enrolled in the chemical engineering curriculum in 1930. "Chemistry, because I like chemistry," he explained. "Engineering, to please my father."
Philip and Neva met when they were undergraduates in chemistry. Although they didn't take classes together, Philip soon discovered Neva was a top scholar. And he was taken with her sense of humor. They married in 1936. Soon both were studying at the University of California, Berkeley.
Neva was one of the first women to earn a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University, and the first woman to be in charge of the hospital's nurseries there. Later she was a professor of pediatrics and pathology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work in pediatrics piqued her interest in the Rhesus factor and its relation to blood disease in tiny infants, which at the time was a likely cause of death or mental retardation.
"I was enraged at seeing those otherwise normal babies dying from Rh incompatibility, and feeling helpless to prevent it," she said during a 1989 interview at WSU.
During World War II, there was an acute need to study blood transfusion reactions among members of the Armed Forces. Recipient of a joint fellowship from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, Neva was charged with trying to discover a serologic method for detecting Rh antibodies. At the Boston Blood Grouping Laboratory, she and Dr. Louis K. Diamond together developed the simple, and now common, test for the Rh factor. Their findings enhanced the treatment of hemolytic diseases of the newborn and opened the door for safer blood transfusions.
Both Abelsons are recipients of the WSU Regent's Distinguished Alumnus Award, the highest honor the University bestows on a graduate. Philip was the first honoree in 1962, the year the award was established. Neva was recognized in 1989. She died in 2000. Philip says, "There were very few couples who shared as many intellectual topics."
Abelson considers himself a physical chemist, although most of his important research has been in nuclear physics. His wide-ranging interest in science was apparent at Washington State College. He completed a degree in chemistry (1933) in three years. Two years later, he had a master's degree in physics. He obtained his doctorate (1939) in nuclear physics at UC, Berkeley. There it was his good fortune to work under the general direction of Ernest O. Lawrence in the early days of the famed Radiation Laboratory and the cyclotron.
In his dissertation, Abelson described the first identification of many important products of uranium fission. And he collaborated with U.S. physicist Edwin McMillan to discover the chemical properties of a new element, neptunium. Later he developed the liquid thermal diffusion process to partially separate uranium-235 from uranium-238.
During World War II Abelson's uranium separation process at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. was adopted by the Manhattan Project. At the end of the war, his report on the feasibility of building a nuclear-powered submarine eventually led to the U.S. program in that field.
Abelson doesn't talk about the Manhattan Project–code name for the U.S. government's push to develop the atomic bomb. But the project paved the way for post-war production of plutonium, as well as research on nuclear energy. Historians suggest the project is most likely responsible for the quick end of World War II.
When Abelson was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1959, the occasion and his accomplishments were well noted.
"He [Abelson] ". . . could have affiliated himself with any one of seven sections of the Academy, because he has made distinguished contributions to biochemistry, chemistry, engineering, geology, geophysics, microbiology and physics," wrote Frank L. Campbell, then associate editor of the Journal of the Washington [D.C.] Academy of Sciences.
Abelson registered with the NAS as a geologist. In 1971, he served as president of the Carnegie Institution. He still lives in Washington, D.C. During his 22 years (1962-1984) as editor of Science magazine, he would write some 600 editorials, one every other week. Neva would type and proofread many of them.
"When you overwrite about 20 percent, you can be real tough about what you throw out," he says. He would accumulate a wealth of information, often consulting with many people before writing. He says he wanted to have a "broad scope of what he was going to tackle in mind." Then he would think about the data. Was the material worth bringing to an audience? What crucial points did he want to make?
"The readers of Science magazine were not inclined to suffer fools gladly," he says. "If you had any kind of a sentence that would give them an excuse to write a letter to the editor, they would do it."
As he prepared to depart from Pullman for his return to Washington, D.C. following the renaming of Science Hall, Abelson said he planned to attend a three-day retreat on Chesapeake Bay with 30 or 35 Science staff members, including its European component. The staff typically meets in retreat twice a year.
"I'm meditating on a message now," he said in his soft, almost whisper-like voice. "I will listen until I feel there is an appropriate moment [at the retreat] to intervene. If that moment doesn't come, I won't intervene."
During a 50-minute interview with the scientist it was obvious he hasn't lost his passion for learning or his search to "identify important trends that are likely to affect science and society in the coming years."
"I've made a real effort to stay in touch where the knowledge frontiers were developing," he says. "If your knowledge base grows, and you are alert and lucky, you will find on some occasions a topic that greatly needs investigation."
Abelson says he and many other scientists were disappointed by President George W. Bush's slowness to appoint an advisor in the important area of scientific endeavor. Abelson adds, "In budget considerations, he [President Bush] certainly has not recommended the kind of investment in the future that could be justified."
What would it take to bring about change?
"Some new crisis," Abelson says, shrugging his shoulders, his hands up-turned. "A new crisis in health, because everyone is interested in health."
Abelson believes the pursuit of knowledge is a matter of following one's own inclinations and curiosity. He still makes the five-mile trip from his home to his office daily, where he puts in a full eight-hour shift, if not longer, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"There are very few people at age 89 that management is willing to keep around," he says.
And his advice for students today?
"Keep learning," he responds without hesitating.
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