Skip to Main Content
Skip Nav Destination

Obituary of Walter Ernst Meyerhof

13 July 2007

Walter E. Meyerhof, professor emeritus of physics at Stanford University and noted nuclear and atomic physicist, died 27 May 2006, in Los Altos, CA at age 84. He distinguished himself in his many contributions to both nuclear physics and atomic physics.

Meyerhof was born in Kiel, Germany on 22 April 1922. He became interested in science at age 10 and decided to become a physicist because of an inspiring high-school teacher. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1946 for an investigation of the electrical properties of silicon-metal contacts, Meyerhof turned to nuclear physics, initially as a useful tool to study solid surfaces. As a junior faculty member at the University of Illinois from 1946 to 1949, he became an experimental low-energy nuclear physicist in close association with his colleagues, Gertrude and Maurice Goldhaber. He joined the Stanford University faculty in 1949, and, together with Stanley Hanna, led a strong nuclear-physics program for several decades.

Appreciation of theory always motivated Meyerhof's choice of experiments, both in nuclear physics and in accelerator-related atomic physics. Using a new Tandem Van de Graaff accelerator, he studied threshold effects in nuclear reactions, particularly reactions in four and five nucleon systems. During the 1950's and 1960's Meyerhof published over 60 papers in low-energy nuclear physics. In addition, his undergraduate textbook, Elements of Nuclear Physics, was published by McGraw Hill in 1967.

In the early 1970's Meyerhof switched his research to atomic physics at high (MeV to GeV) collision energies, strongly influenced by the work of Walter Greiner and collaborators at the University of Frankfurt. Meyerhof enjoyed atomic physics for its theoretical and experimental opportunities, realizing that the techniques of low-energy nuclear physics also applied at the interface between nuclear and atomic physics. Instead of regarding the atomic electrons in nuclear collisions as unwelcome bystanders, he saw the tightly bound inner electrons as influential and significant participants in the interaction between projectile ions and target atoms. With a long list of collaborators in many accelerator laboratories, Meyerhof undertook fundamental experiments that increased our understanding of the inelastic processes in energetic ion-atom collisions. His measurements covered a wide range of relative collision velocity and of atomic numbers for the projectile and target nuclei. He was thus able to explore collision dynamics both at high velocities and low projectile Z, where Coulomb perturbation methods apply, and in the low-velocity and high-Z regime that is best understood in terms of the transient formation of diatomic quasi-molecules. This work included fundamental contributions to understanding the instability of the electron-positron vacuum in supercritical Coulomb fields, including key tests of the vacuum decay. All told, Meyerhof published over 100 papers on atomic collisions.

Meyerhof was known as an exceptional mentor and teacher, inspiring loyalty from both graduate and undergraduate students alike. As Physics Department chairman at Stanford for 1970-1977, he constantly tried to include junior faculty in substantial roles, bringing a measure of democracy to the department. In 1992, he retired after 43 years on the faculty but maintained an active interest and involvement in the physics community. Meyerhof also established a foundation to publicize and preserve the memory of Varian Fry, the American Schindler who saved his life by helping him and many others flee Vichy France/Nazi Germany. He commissioned an educational documentary about Fry's rescue mission, Assignment Rescue, that was distributed, along with an educational kit, in schools in the US and France. And, he wrote a personal history, In the Shadow of Love, that included his experience during World War II.

Meyerhof received Stanford's prestigious Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for outstanding service to undergraduate education in 1977. In addition to recognizing his sensitive leadership during the often-turbulent Vietnam era, the award specifically cited his key role in initiating several critical new developments. He worked closely with undergraduates to plan and complete an undergraduate observatory, bringing astronomy into the curriculum. He enthusiastically embraced peer review in the evaluation of teaching. Most importantly, he was an active and tireless advocate for enhanced presence of women and minority graduate students in science. As a result, Stanford University produced the largest number of African-Americans with Ph. D.s in Physics or Applied Physics during the past three decades. In 1992, the National Conference of Black Physics Students presented Walter with an award that recognized this remarkable achievement.

His warm presence touched all his friends and colleagues. We shall miss his remarkable wisdom.

Close Modal

or Create an Account

Close Modal
Close Modal