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Photo of Arthur Hughes

Arthur L. Hughes, 1883-1978


(Excerpt from "Still a Scientist at the Age of 81". By William Woo. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 20, 1965)

[Arthur Llewelyn] Hughes came to Washington University in 1923 to succeed Arthur Holly Compton as head of the physics department, and it was in the ensuing years of his chairmanship that the department, for all purposes, crossed the threshold into modern physics. There were two reasons for this, and for one of them neither Hughes nor anyone else could have take credit. It was simply the times. The day of quantum mechanics had arrived, and sooner or later the complexion of the department was bound to change. Indeed, the change already had begun under Compton.

The other reason, and a less abstract one, was that Hughes recruited a remarkable number of first-class physicists whose work brought about the change in the department very rapidly. These included Lee A. DuBridge, now president of the California Institute of Technology; L.C. Van Atta, now a vice president of Lockheed Missiles & Space Co.; Clarence Zener, now director of science at Westinghouse Research Laboratories, and George E. Pake, currently Washington University provost and member of President Johnson's Science Advisory Committee.

"I had the idea that we should get men who were so good that we couldn't keep them, on the theory that these men would do a great deal of good work for the university before they left," Hughes said. "It was a nuisance when they left, insofar as I had to find new men. Nevertheless, I think it was very profitable for the department to have had them here."

Hughes' own interests in physics have been broad: the list of his publications, for instance, shows a steady output of articles from 1910 into the 1960s. His Photoelectric Phenomena, published in 1933 with DuBridge, remained the standard work on the subject until 1959, when it went out of print. Since a physics text can become obsolete in a very short time, the endurance of this work was remarkable.

[Hughes] was born in Liverpool, and had to go to work at 14 to help support his widowed mother and sister. [At] Liverpool University, he took a physics course under Charles Barkla, a young instructor who was doing research in the field of X-rays and who later won a Nobel Prize. Barkla asked Hughes to help record observations in an experiment.

"He wanted a person who had a perfectly ignorant mind, but who was willing to follow instructions," Hughes recalled.

Barkla later urged Hughes to take an honors-level physics course. Hughes did and a few years later went to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge where he studied under J.J. Thomson, who had won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1906.

It was at Cambridge that Hughes carried out what some consider his finest scientific work, proving the validity of Einstein's theory of the photoelectric effect. In 1912, he accepted a teaching position at the newly-founded Rice Institute in Texas. When World War I broke out, Hughes returned to England to work on anti-submarine devices.

Shortly after the war he left Rice to take a research professorship at Queen's College in Ontario, from which he was called to St. Louis by Compton in 1923.

For 15 months in World War II Hughes served as assistant director of the Los Alamos atomic energy project, acting as recruiting officer. "I never saw such a collection of top notch scientists in my life," he said, "and as you probably know, our whole chemistry department was brought lock, stock, and barrel from Los Alamos. I think six of those men are still here."

"The big job was to persuade scientists to come to Los Alamos without telling them what was going on. When I arrived, there were 250 people in all, scientists and technicians. When I left 15 months later, there were about 3000."

I asked Hughes about changes he has seen in physics.

"When I came here," he said, "we were rather pedestrian in our attitude toward physics. I suppose that attitude was rather world-wide back then. We took summer vacations because there was no paid work to be done then. Now no one takes long vacations. Before World War II, physicists were hardly known in industry. Any job was likely to be in teaching or in government re search. Nowadays physicists have become acceptable people."

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