The end of World War II was a happy time in the United States. It marked the defeat of Nazism and helped ignite one of history’s great economic expansions. And for the nation’s colleges and universities, there was still another benefit: the GI Bill, which did much to keep many institutions afloat. But for regional New England colleges, even those like Tufts that were nearly a hundred years old, survival was going to require more than just the government providing tuition dollars to returning veterans. It was going to require finding both additional financial resources and an identity. So when Tufts President Leonard Carmichael announced in 1952 that he was moving on, and the trustees, preferring continuity, replaced him with Tufts dean and vice president Nils Wessell, one of the very first things Wessell did was propose that Tufts College become Tufts University.
That was back in 1953, when the school was mainly a four-year teaching college with about three thousand undergraduates in arts, sciences, and engineering. Most of the faculty taught four courses per semester. Tufts at the time also included The Fletcher School and the Crane Theological Seminary in Medford, and the medical and dental schools in downtown Boston. But for Wessell to achieve his vision—for Tufts to become a research university with important new revenue streams—it was going to take building research programs in arts, sciences, and engineering, and also granting master’s and PhD degrees. In 1954, the name change to Tufts University was formalized. That same year, Charles Stearns was appointed dean of arts and sciences, with very specific marching orders from Wessell: build research in the science departments.
When Stearns looked into his pocketbook, however, he winced. He had almost no money. Fortunately, he had a plan. Himself a scientist, Stearns understood that the hottest field of research in the country—and the one with the biggest potential for government funding—was physics. It was physics that had virtually won the war, through the work done on the atom bomb and radar. And it was in this discipline that Stearns put his faith, launching a search for a new chairman of the physics department. Whoever took the job would wind up determining whether Tufts would ever be able to compete as a research institution. As it happened, fate was smiling down on the Hill.
Like so many others before and after him, Julian Knipp fell for Boston. He got his PhD at Harvard, taught at Purdue, and was recruited during the war by the MIT Radiation Lab. Even after Knipp wound up as a professor of physics at Iowa State College, he promised himself that he would one day get back to Boston. So when a friend told him that Tufts was seeking a chairman for its physics department, Knipp made it a point to talk with Charlie Stearns. One conversation sealed the deal, even when Stearns explained that whatever funds he could scrape up for the department would be meager. Failure or success was going to depend on outside grants. On September 1, 1955, Julian Knipp assumed the chairmanship. The modern age of physics at Tufts had begun.
Knipp’s first task was to determine the kind of physics that the department would focus on. Because he knew the work of most of the Manhattan Project scientists, and knew how high-energy accelerators were studying new particles at national laboratories in Berkeley, California, and Brookhaven, New York, he decided that the heart of the new department would be elementary particle physics: high-energy physics, both theoretical and experimental. He understood that this focus would give the department a good chance at federal funding.
But Knipp also knew that particle physics might not attract lots of graduate students. So he added to the plan a more applied, more “user-friendly,” branch of the field that would appeal to chemists, biologists, and even engineers: solid-state physics. Helping him arrive at this bit of wisdom was the fact that the only holdovers in the department who might contribute anything at all were two young assistant professors who both happened to be working in experimental and theoretical solid-state physics. They were Kathyrn McCarthy, who had been a Jackson undergraduate (and would later become the first female provost of Tufts), and Jack Tessman. In 1956 they became the core for the new program in solid-state physics.
With McCarthy and Tessman in place, Knipp was freed up to create the particle physics part of the department, and to get a graduate program going. That’s where the money was, and the new chairman needed money for everything—graduate assistantships, equipment and facilities, salaries for new hires, travel, summer stipends, technicians—even as he set out to compete against the giants of academic physics departments, including Berkeley, Cornell, Chicago, Columbia, MIT, and Harvard. In 1956, without a grant to provide research support, Knipp was unable to attract even an experienced postdoc. So he had to settle for an untested graduate student from the University of Wisconsin named Jack Schneps, who was willing to come to a department without one cent of outside funding. All Schneps required, he told Knipp, was a microscope. That led to the
department securing its first grant—for Schneps’s microscope.
Two weeks after Schneps arrived in Medford, Knipp called him and another researcher out of class and into his office. It was time to begin writing the first of the department’s applications to the Atomic Energy Commission. They were to propose a project involving newly discovered particles, and plead for funds to move the department forward. In what amounted to a desperate roll of the dice, the department asked the commission for $21,943. (Assistant professors back then were being hired for $4,000 salaries.)
When rumors spread of a Tufts research application to the Atomic Energy Commission, the physics world wondered what was going on. Every serious particle physicist in the country knew Julian Knipp, but what could he possibly accomplish at an undergraduate college without resources? Tufts was barely known at all in these circles. Indeed, in 1957, when Schneps bumped into buddies from the University of Wisconsin, where he had gotten his doctorate the year before, the conversation went something like this:
“Hi, Jack, great to see you! So, where are you now?”
“I’m an assistant professor at Tufts University.”
“Tufts University? Where’s that?”
“Oh, a couple of miles down the road from Harvard and MIT.”
Still, Knipp and his team tried to remain optimistic as they waited to hear about their grant application. In December 1956, the word finally arrived—they had received funding approval for almost the entire amount they had requested. Graduate announcements were sent out and applications started coming in. The grant provided funding for two new assistant professorships.
This small Tufts research department, by gaining acceptance as an intellectual equal, immediately began making contributions to some of the most enormous, multi-university, high-energy collaborations in the world. Tufts faculty were on hand when each new subatomic particle was discovered.
It was not surprising that the following year, 1958, the grant was renewed at $30,061—and that funding allowed the particle physics group to jump from three to six faculty, and from two to five graduate students. In 1959 the grant rose to $42,133, then to $50,000 in 1960, and $82,165 in 1961. A new respect for physics at Tufts began to spread. When Allen Everett left Harvard in 1960, and Rick Milburn in 1961, they had offers from around the country. They chose Tufts.
Through the years, Julian Knipp’s renown continued to grow, and in 1967 he was appointed dean of the Tufts School of Arts and Sciences. His final grant as principal investigator that year was approved for $365,000 by the Atomic Energy Commission, the equivalent of nearly $3 million in today’s dollars. The grant supported ten faculty, thirteen PhD candidates, six postdocs, fourteen film scanners, four administrative assistants, and four technicians. It also helped to pay for renovations that transformed Robinson and Bacon halls. In eleven years of Julian Knipp’s stewardship, the outside grants to the physics department added up to more than those won by the rest of the School of Arts and Sciences combined.
Even after Knipp transitioned out of the department, physics never looked back. Astronomy became a major focus, and solid-state physics expanded with funding from the National Science Foundation. Through the early 1970s, while the rest of the School of Arts and Sciences struggled to find an identity, physics established itself as the national face of the university. When the new Tufts President Jean Mayer arrived in 1976, a Harvard colleague advised him, “You have one authentic research department: physics.”
The department launched a cosmology group to study the basic physics of the universe and moved into the forefront of neutrino physics, with its exploration of new and smaller particles. To close out this extraordinary rush to the top, the Tufts researcher Allan Cormack won the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his work involving the mathematics of CT scanning—a personal side project about which no one in the department, except Kathryn McCarthy, was all that familiar.
Tufts’ ascent continued into the 1980s, bringing additional grants and world recognition. In 1988 Tufts was selected to host the International Conference on Neutrino Physics and Astrophysics, with 330 participants living on campus, including five Nobel laureates and thirty-three Soviet physicists—all of them accompanied by the FBI and KGB (who were delighted to discover Jay’s Deli on Boston Avenue). The Tufts European Center in Talloires, meanwhile, was the site of international neutrino meetings in the 1980s and 1990s. And talented new assistant professors kept coming: Krzysztof Sliwa and Austin Napier, for instance, began work on high-energy collider physics at the Fermilab outside of Chicago, eventually sharing in the discovery of a fundamental new particle.
The original Atomic Energy Commission grant to Tufts physics has now been funded for sixty-one consecutive years. It has supported the work of many renowned Tufts physicists, including David Weaver, Gary Goldstein, George Mumford, Ken Lang, Leon Gunther, Howard Sample, Bob Guertin, Alexander Vilenkin, Larry Ford, Tony Mann, Bill Oliver, Tom Kafka, and countless others. All of which is to say that out of one man’s vision was built a world-class research department where none had existed.
Sol Gittleman is the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor and a former university provost. He notes he could not have written this essay without the help, and prodigious memory, of Professor Emeritus Jack Schneps. Send comments to email@example.com.