William A. Fowler


I was born in 1911 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of John MacLeod Fowler and Jennie Summers Watson Fowler. My parents had two other children, my younger brother, Arthur Watson Fowler and my still younger sister, Nelda Fowler Wood. My paternal grandfather, William Fowler, was a coal miner in Slammannan, near Falkirk, Scotland who emigrated to Pittsburgh to find work as a coal miner around 1880. My maternal grandfather, Alfred Watson, was a grocer. He emigrated to Pittsburgh, also around 1880, from Taniokey, near Clare in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. His parents taught in the National School, the local grammar school for children, in Taniokey, for sixty years. The family lived in the central part of the school building; my great grandfather taught the boys in one wing of the building and my great grandmother taught the girls in the other wing. The school is still there and I have been to see it.

I was raised in Lima, Ohio, from the age of two when my father, an accountant, was transferred to Lima from Pittsburgh. Each summer during my childhood the family went back to Pittsburgh during my father’s vacation from work. He was an ardent sportsman and through him I became (and still am) a loyal fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National Baseball League and of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the National Football League.

Lima was a railroad center served by the Pennsylvania, Erie, Nickel Plate and Baltimore & Ohio railroads. It was also the home of the Lima Locomotive Works which built steam locomotives. My brother, Arthur Watson Fowler, a mechanical engineer, worked for Lima Locomotive all his life until his retirement. After 1960 the company produced power shovels and construction cranes. As a boy I spent many hours in the switch yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad not far from my family home. It is no wonder that I go around the world seeking passenger trains still pulled by steam locomotives. In 1973 I travelled the Trans Siberian Railroad from Khabarovsk to Moscow because, among other reasons, the train was powered by steam for almost 2 500 kilometers from Khabarovsk to Chita. It’s not powered by steam but now I can afford to ride on the new Orient Express. It is also no wonder that on my 60th birthday my colleagues and former students presented me in Cambridge, England, with a working model, 3 1/4″ gauge (1/16 standard size) British Tank Engine. I operated it frequently on the elevated track of the Cambridge and District Model Engineering Society. It is my pride and joy. I have named it Prince Hal.

I attended Horace Mann Grade School and Lima Central High School. A few of my high school teachers are still alive and I met them at my 50th class reunion in 1979. I was President of the Senior Class of 1929. My teachers encouraged and fostered my interest in engineering and science but also insisted that I take four years of Latin rather than French or German. My family home was located across the street from the extensive playgrounds of Horace Mann School. There were baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a running track and a football field. During my high school days I played on the Central High School football team and won my letter as a senior. Horace Mann was Central’s home football field. During my college days I served as Recreational Director of the Horace Mann playground during the summer. Not far from my home was Baxter’s Woods with a running creek and swimming hole. What a wonderful environment it all was for my boyhood!

On graduation from school I enrolled at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, in ceramic engineering. I had won a prize for an essay on the production of Portland cement and ceramic engineering seemed a natural choice for me. Fortunately all engineering students took the same courses including physics and mathematics. I became fascinated with physics and when I learned from Professor Alpheus Smith, head of the Physics Department, that there was a new degree offered in Engineering Physics I enrolled in that option at the start of my sophomore year. So also did Leonard I. Schiff, who became a very great theoretical physicist. We were lifelong friends until his death a few years ago.

My parents were not affluent and my summer salary as recreation director did not cover my expenses at Ohio State. For my meals I waited table, washed the dishes and stoked the furnaces at the Phi Sigma Sigma Sorority. I worked Saturdays cutting and selling ham and cheese in an outside stall at the Central Market in Columbus. Early in the morning we put up the stall and unloaded the hams and cheeses from the wholesaler’s truck; late at night we cleaned up and took down the stall. For eighteen hours work I was paid five dollars. I did scrape enough money together to join a social fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon. In my junior year I was elected to the engineering honorary society, Tau Beta Pi, and in my senior year I was elected President of the Ohio State Chapter.

My professors at Ohio State solidified my interest in experimental physics. Willard Bennett permitted me to do an undergraduate thesis on the “Focussing of Electron Beams” in his laboratory. From him I learned how different a working laboratory is from a student laboratory. The answers are not known! John Byrne permitted me to work after school hours in the electronic laboratory of the Electrical Engineering Department. I studied the characteristics of the Pentode! It was the best of worlds-the thrills of making real measurements in physics along with practical training in engineering.

On graduation from Ohio State I came to Caltech and became a graduate student under Charles Christian Lauritsen – physicist, engineer, architect and violinist – in the W.K. Kellogg Radiation Laboratory. Kellogg was constructed to Lauritsen’s architectural plans by funds obtained from the American corn flakes king by Robert Andrews Millikan. Lauritsen was a native of Denmark and in common with many Scandinavians he loved the songs of Carl Michael Bellman, the 18th century Swedish poet-musician. He tried to teach me to sing Bellman’s drinking songs with a good Swedish accent but I failed miserably except in spirit or should I say spirits. ‘Del Delsasso dubbed me Willy and it stuck’.

Charlie Lauritsen was the greatest influence in my life. He supervised my doctoral thesis on “Radioactive Elements of Low Atomic Number” in which we discovered mirror nuclei and showed that the nuclear forces are charge symmetric-the same between two protons as between two neutrons when charged particle Coulomb forces are excluded. He taught me many practical things-how to repair motors, plumbing, and electrical wiring. Most of all he taught me how to do physics and how to enjoy it. I also learned from my fellow graduate students Richard Crane and Lewis Delsasso. Charlie’s son, Tommy Lauritsen, did his doctoral work under us and the three of us worked together as a team for over thirty-five years. We were primarily experimentalists. In the early days Robert Oppenheimer taught us the theoretical implications of our results. Richard Tolman taught us not to rush into the publication of premature results in those days of intense competition between nuclear laboratories.

Hans Bethe’s announcement of the CN-cycle in 1939 changed our lives. We were studying the nuclear reactions of protons with the isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the laboratory, the very reactions in the CN-cycle. World War II intervened. The Kellogg Laboratory was engaged in defense research throughout the war. I spent three months in the South Pacific during 1944 as a civilian with simulated military rank. I saw at first hand the heroism of soldiers and seamen and the horrors they endured.

Just before the war I married Ardiane Foy Olmsted whose family came to California over the plains and mountains of the western United States in the Gold Rush around 1850. We are the parents of two daughters, Mary Emily and Martha Summers, whom we refer to as our biblical characters. Martha and her husband, Robert Schoenemann, are the parents of our grandson, Spruce William Schoenemann. They live in Pawlet, a small village in Vermont-the Green Mountain State.

After the war the Lauritsens and I restored Kellogg as a nuclear laboratory and decided to concentrate on nuclear reactions which take place in stars. We called it Nuclear Astrophysics. Before the war Hans Staub and William Stephens had confirmed that there was no stable nucleus at mass 5. After the war Alvin Tollestrup, Charlie Lauritsen and I confirmed that there was no stable nucleus at mass 8. These mass gaps spelled the doom of George Gamow’s brilliant idea that all nuclei heavier than helium (mass 4) could be built by neutron addition one mass unit at a time in his big bang. Edwin Salpeter of Cornell came to Kellogg in the summer of 1951 and showed that the fusion of three helium nuclei of mass four into the carbon nucleus of mass twelve could probably occur in Red Giant stars but not in the big bang. In 1953 Fred Hoyle induced Ward Whaling in Kellogg to perform an experiment which quantitatively confirmed the fusion process under the temperature and density conditions which Hoyle, Martin Schwarzschild and Allan Sandage had shown occur in Red Giants.

Fred Hoyle was the second great influence in my life. The grand concept of nucleosynthesis in stars was first definitely established by Hoyle in 1946. After Whaling’s confirmation of Hoyle’s ideas I became a believer and in 1954/1955 spent a sabbatical year in Cambridge, England, as a Fulbright Scholar in order to work with Hoyle. There Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge joined us. In 1956 the Burbidges and Hoyle came to Kellogg and in 1957 our joint efforts culminated in the publication of “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars” in which we showed that all of the elements from carbon to uranium could be produced by nuclear processes in stars starting with the hydrogen and helium produced in the big bang. This paper has come to be known from the last initials of the authors as B2FH. A. G. W. Cameron single-handedly came forward with the same broad ideas at the same time.

Fred Hoyle became the Plumian Professor at Cambridge, was knighted by the Queen and founded the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy in Cambridge in 1966. I spent many happy summers at the Institute until Hoyle’s retirement to Cumbria in the Lake District of England. Fred taught me more than astrophysics. He introduced me to English cricket, rugby and association football (we call it soccer). He took me to the Scottish Highlands and taught me how to read an ordnance map as well as how to enjoy climbing the 3000 ft peaks called Munros. I still go climbing somewhere in the British Isles every summer. It keeps me fit and renews my soul.

If has been a long row to hoe. Experimental measurements of the cross section of hundreds of nuclear reactions and their conversion into stellar reaction rates are essential if nucleosynthesis in stars is to be quantitatively confirmed. The Kellogg Laboratory has played a leading role for many years in this effort. I am fortunate that the Nobel Prize was awarded from team work. It is impossible to credit all my colleagues. In experimental nuclear astrophysics Charles Barnes and Ralph Kavanagh have played leading roles. So did Thomas Tombrello and Ward Whaling until they found other fields of interest and promise. In addition Robert Christy and Steven Koonin in theoretical nuclear physics, Jesse Greenstein in observational and theoretical astronomy and Gerald Wasserburg in precision geochemistry on meteoritic and lunar samples have played essential roles. Of my 50 graduate students who have contributed to the field I must single out Donald D. Clayton. His graduate student Stanford Woosley is my grand student and his student Rick Wallace is my great grand student. Nuclear Astrophysics continues to be an active and exciting field. This is clearly evident in my 70th birthday festschrift, “Essays in Nuclear Astrophysics” in which the Cambridge University Press presents the research studies of my colleagues and former students around the world as of 1982.

It is appropriate to conclude, without elaboration, with some details of my life outside the laboratory:

Awarded Medal for Merit by President Harry Truman, 1948
Elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, 1956
Awarded Barnard Medal for Meritorious Service to Science, 1965
Member of the National Science Board, 1968-74
Member of the Space Science Board, 1970-73, 1977-80
Designated Benjamin Franklin Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, 1970
Awarded the G. Unger Vetlesen Prize, 1973
Awarded National Medal of Science by President Gerald Ford, 1974
Designated Associate of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1975
Elected President of the American Physical Society, 1976
Designated an Honorary Member of the Mark Twain Society, 1976
Awarded Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1978
Awarded Bruce Gold Medal, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1979
Elected to the Society of American Baseball Research, 1980-
Honorary degrees from University of Chicago, 1976, Ohio State University, 1978, University of Liege 1981, Observatory of Paris 1981 and Denison University 1982.

From Nobel Lectures, Physics 1981-1990, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Gösta Ekspong, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1983

Addendum, 1991

My 80th birthday celebration was held August 11 to 14, 1991 as a Nuclear Astrophysics Symposium, which was one part of the Caltech Centennial Year events. Again my colleagues and former students participated along with other experts in the field of nuclear astrophysics.

Ardiane Fowler died in May 1988. In December 1989 I married Mary Dutcher, a descendant of the Dutch founders of NewAmsterdam, now NewYork. She had taught grade school for many years on Long Island and had not previously been married. We reside in the two-story, New England style white frame house, which I purchased in 1958. It is only a ten-minute walk from Caltech. I am retired from teaching so my only routine trips to the Institute are on Wednesdays for the Astronomy Seminar, Thursdays for the Physics Colloquium and Fridays for the Kellogg Nuclear Physics Seminar. Mary Dutcher Fowler has painted all her life and she now attends a painting school in Pasadena. We keep busy by taking long walks on many weekends and in general try to stay out of trouble.

Honorary degrees
Arizona State University, 1985
Georgetown University, 1986
University of Massachusetts, 1987
Williams College, 1988
Gustavus Adolphus College, 1991
Nobel Prize for Physics, 1983
Sullivant Medal, The Ohio State University, 1985
First recipient of the William A. Fowler Award for excellence and Distinguished Accomplishments in Physics, Ohio Section, American Physical Society, 1986
Legion d’Honneur awarded by President Mitterrand of France, 1989
Member of Lima City Schools Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame, 1990
Member of Ohio Sci. & Tech. Hall of Fame, 1991

William A. Fowler died on March 14, 1995.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1991

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MLA style: William A. Fowler – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Sat. 9 Dec 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1983/fowler/biographical/>

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