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Philip H. Abelson, World-Renowned Scientist, Dies at Age 91
Philip H. Abelson, Ph.D., accomplished scientist and former Science editor, died on 1 August at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 91. His work and contributions spanned more than 40 years with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His positions of leadership and his service on many national advisory committees enabled him to shape national science and technology policy.
"Dr. Abelson, a true icon in the scientific community, took the journal Science to a new level of quality and prominence during his 22-year tenure," said Alan I. Leshner, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of Science. "After he stepped down as editor in 1984, he remained an active contributor to the journal and adviser to AAAS, pursuing his passion for science and research, often at the forefront of scientific discovery. A mentor and friend to many of us, Dr. Abelson sought creative ways to overcome any barrier in the path to progress. One of his favorite sayings was, 'Tough times never last, but tough people do'."
Philip Hauge Abelson, born 27 April 1913, in Tacoma, earned both his bachelor's degree in chemistry and his master's degree in physics at Washington State College. In 1935, he began his career as a young physicist at the University of California at Berkeley, performing early nuclear research in "The Radiation Laboratory," known today as the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In 1939, he obtained his Ph.D. degree in nuclear physics. The following year, he and Edwin McMillan discovered the first transuranic element, neptunium. In 1941 he joined the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., where he developed a liquid thermal diffusion process, which was used as an initial step in enriching uranium for the first atomic bomb.
Apart from the war years at NRL, he spent 34 years at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. He first came to the city in 1939 to work on cyclotron development as an assistant physicist in Carnegie's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. In 1941 he transferred to NRL to work on defense projects, on a leave of absence from Carnegie, where he returned to head the Department's biophysics section from 1946 until 1953. In 1953 he became director of the Geophysical Laboratory and was Carnegie's president from 1971 to 1978. During this time, he also extended the important work of Stanley Miller on the origin of vital biological molecules. From 1962 until 1984, he was the editor of Science, published by AAAS. He continued his association with Science and at the same time was a senior adviser to AAAS until his death. At AAAS, he also served as its acting executive officer in 1974, 1975 and 1984.
"His own editorials were clear, rich with content, and sometimes angry," said Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, in a tribute he wrote (Science, 6 August 2004). "He didn't like government regulation much, particularly when it involved regulation of science, and when I was at the Food and Drug Administration doing some of that, his editorials occasionally made me wince. But his arguments were honest, asking only to be judged on their merits. The last paragraph of one of his editorials, written in 1976 when society was concerned about the unanticipated risks associated with new technologies, is revealing. After surveying the cost-benefit pendulum of innovation, he comes down against the pessimists: 'One would not advocate that we become a nation of Panglosses. However, enough of pessimism. It leads nowhere but to paralysis and decay'."
Among his scientific accomplishments, Dr. Abelson was perhaps best known 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. As editor of Science, he implemented more efficient peer-review procedures for scientific papers and encouraged a more active style of science reporting that included broader coverage of science and policy issues. He wrote some 600 editorials addressing public debates over scientific research, including AIDS, technology and energy policy. In 2001 and 2002, he gave his scientific papers to the Library of Congress.
Dr. Abelson credited his father, a civil engineer, with giving him an insatiable appetite for information. He subscribed to a host of scientific journals, scanning them every day for information worthy of further study. He maintained academic vigor through strict self-discipline, and his work was wide ranging, with contributions made in chemistry, physics, biochemistry, geophysics and medicine. His life-long interests were reflected in his organization of AAAS's annual Advancing Science Seminar series, the last of which examined innovative technologies that show promise in delaying the diseases of aging, and in diagnosing and treating cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative diseases. Dr. Abelson governed his daily life through simple, practical guidelines that included a regimen of exercise and proper diet.
Nationally, Dr. Abelson has been honored with many major awards. During his lifetime, he received the President's National Medal of Science; the Vannevar Bush Distinguished Public Service Award from the National Science Foundation, its highest honor; the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal; the Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science from UNESCO; the Science Achievement Award from the American Medical Association; and the Public Welfare Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, its most prestigious award. In his honor, AAAS established the Philip Hauge Abelson Prize in 1985 to recognize an individual for his or her scientific achievement, public service, or service to the scientific community.
Dr. Abelson is survived by his daughter, Dr. Ellen A. Cherniavsky, a senior engineer in the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development with MITRE Corp. His wife, Neva, had an outstanding career as a doctor. She was one of the first women to graduate with a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and is most noted as the co-developer of a crucial test for the Rh factor in blood. She died in 2000.
3 August 2004