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E. Bright Wilson, Jr.

E. Bright Wilson, Jr.

CHF Collections, Photograph by Ray Ferguson

  • Born: December 18, 1908, Gallatin, Tennessee
  • Died: July 12, 1992

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0061
Interview Dates: November 17, 1986 and November 18, 1986
Location: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Interviewer: Raymond C. Ferguson
No. of pages: 60
Minutes: 210

  Abstract of Interview

E. Bright Wilson, Jr. begins the interview with a description of his parents, childhood, and early education. He then discusses his undergraduate and graduate studies at Princeton University, where he was inspired by the intellectual atmosphere and affable faculty. After reviewing the curriculum, his senior thesis on quantum mechanics, and his experience at Tuxedo Park, he recalls his years at the California Institute of Technology, where he began work with vibration and group theory. Next, he describes his work at Harvard, focusing on advances in spectroscopy, and his government research at Woods Hole and in Washington, D.C. Wilson concludes with a brief profile of his family and a few remarks on his publications.


1930 B.S., Chemistry, Princeton University
1931 M.A. Princeton University
1933 Ph.D., Physical Chemistry, California Institute of Technology

  Professional Experience

California Institute of Technology

1933 - 1934

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

1942 - 1944 Research Director, Underwater Explosives Research LaboratoryChief, Division 2

National Defense Research Committee

1944 - 1946 Junior Fellow, Society of Fellows

Department of Defense

1952 - 1953 Research Fellow

Harvard University

1934 - 1936 Assistant Professor

Harvard University

1936 - 1939 Associate Professor

Harvard University

1939 - 1946 Professor

Harvard University

1946 - 1979 Theodore William Richards Professor of Chemistry

Harvard University

1947 - 1979 Professor Emeritus

Harvard University

1979 Weapons System Evaluation Group


1937 Award in Pure Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1942 Honorary M.A., Harvard University
1948 Medal for Merit, United States Government
1949 - 1950 Guggenheim Fellow
1962 Debye Award in Physical Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1966 Alumni Distinguished Service Award, California Institute of Technology
1966 James Flack Norris Award in Teaching of Chemistry, Northeast Section, American Chemical Society
1969 G. N. Lewis Award, California Section, American Chemical Society
1970 - 1971 Guggenheim Fellow
1972 Pauling Award, Oregon and Puget Sound Section, American Chemical Society
1973 Rumford Medal, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1975 D. honoris causa, Free University of Brussels
1976 Honorary D.Sc. degree, Dickinson College
1976 Dr. chemistry, University of Bologna
1976 National Medal of Science
1976 Antonio Feltrinelli Award, Rome, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei
1977 Monie A. Ferst Award, Sigma Xi
1978 Pittsburgh Spectroscopy Award
1978 T. W. Richards Medal, Northeast Section, American Chemical Society
1978 Robert A. Welch Award
1978 Earl A. Plyler Award, American Physical Society
1979 Honorary D.Sc. degree, Columbia University
1979 Willard Gibbs Award
1979 Lippincott Medal
1981 Honorary D.Sc. degree, Princeton University
1983 Honorary D.Sc. degree, Clarkson College
1983 Honorary D.Sc. degree, Harvard University

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family and Childhood 1

Elementary school in Yonkers. High school at Riverdale and Lawrenceville schools. Interest in science begins with chemistry sets and books.

Princeton University 5

Thrilled by intellectual atmosphere. Work on New York subway line digging project. Chemistry curriculum. Research in electrochemistry. Senior thesis on quantum mechanics. Spends some time at Loomis' laboratory in Tuxedo Park. Faculty.

California Institute of Technology (Caltech) 16

Goes to work with Pauling. Social life in Pasadena. Writes book with Pauling. Interest in vibration of polyatomic ions and group theory develops. Ph.D. thesis on ground state of lithium.

Harvard University 24

Twice receives invitation to join Society of Fellows. Works on vibration and internal rotation. Given faculty appointment. Teaches quantum mechanics, physical chemistry. Builds infrared spectrometer. F-G method. Microwave spectroscopy. Writes Introduction to Scientific Research while on sabbatical at Oxford.

Government Work 35

Woods Hole Project during World War II. First experience with explosives, vacuum tubes, electronics. Weapons Systems Evaluation group in Washington, D.C. during Korean War. Bureaucracy and interservice rivalry.

Family 40

Meets first wife, Emily Buckingham, while at Harvard. Eldest son, Kenneth, wins Nobel Prize. Son David active at Cornell in biochemistry. Daughter Nina in economics. Leukemia causes Emily's death. Remarriage. Daughter Ann studies monkey behavior in Amazon jungles in Peru. Son Paul studies differentiation in frog embryos at Berkeley. Son Steven is entrepreneur.

Further Work at Harvard University 46

Signal-to-noise improvement; 1/f noise. Electrical secular determinant solver. Infrared intensity measurement work. Paper with Crawford on internal rotation and vibration.

Notes 51

Index 55

  About the Interviewers

Raymond C. Ferguson

Raymond C. Ferguson obtained his degrees in chemistry from Iowa State University (B.S., M.S.) and Harvard University (Ph.D.). He worked in research divisions of the Organic Chemicals, Elastomer Chemicals, and Central Research Departments of DuPont, principally in molecular spectroscopy, organic structure analysis, and polymer characterization. Currently he is affiliated with CONDUX, Inc., a consulting association of former DuPont professionals.

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