Regents’ Distinguished WSU Alumnus


During a life spanning 91 years, Tacoma native Philip Hauge Abelson left an indelible imprint on science. As a scientist and as longtime respected editor of Science magazine (1962-83), he shaped thinking in the science community. His leadership and service on important advisory committees also enabled him to influence national science and technology policy.

He was a man of many research interests, among them chemistry, biochemistry, engineering, geology, and physics. When he was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 1959, his accomplishments qualified him in all seven NAS categories. He chose geology.

His pioneering research would have global implications:

In 1940, he and Edwin M. McMillan co-discovered neptunium, the 93rd chemical element. The metal is a byproduct of uranium.

As a physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory during World War II, he developed a process to separate uranium. Adopted as part of the Manhattan Project, his research contributed to the creation of the atomic bomb.

His 1946 research paper provided a blueprint for the Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, launched in 1955.

That same year, his book on E. coli bacteria became a standard for research in the emerging field of genetic engineering.

“It’s hard to say whether Abelson left his strongest mark on science as a researcher or as an editor and advocate for sciences,” wrote Washington Post reporter Matt Schudel following Abelson’s death. He died August 1, 2004 of pneumonia in Bethesda, Maryland. He and his wife, Neva, were longtime Washington, D.C. residents. They met as chemistry students at Washington State University, and were married for 63 years before she died in 2000.

Abelson wrote more than 500 editorials for Science, the weekly publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In his first editorial, he identified himself as the “custodian of a uniquely valuable property.”

His editorials were “clear, rich with content, and sometimes angry,” Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy wrote in the August 6, 2004 issue. “He didn’t like government regulation much, particularly when it involved regulation of science . . . . But his arguments were honest, asking only to be judged on their merits.”

Abelson left no doubt were he stood. In one strongly worded opinion piece, he stated, “I don’t mind people getting mad at Phil Abelson, but I don’t want them to get mad at Science or science.”

The magazine’s circulation more than doubled to155, 000 during his tenure. In later years, he continued to contribute editorials on an occasional basis, reported to his AAAS office nearly daily for a full shift, and enjoyed extended walks.

Stanford chemist and 2003 National Medal of Science winner John I. Brauman described Abelson as “an iconic figure . . . . He always found a place of leadership and influence as a scientist and on the public stage.

“He brought this extraordinarily astute mind to every problem he encountered, whether it was with Science magazine, scientific research or social concerns,” Brauman told the Washington Post.

The manned space program was one of Abelson’s targets. He referred to it as “a waste of time and money that did little but satisfy a sense of adventure.”

In 1938, after he had gained recognition as a graduate student in Ernest O. Lawrence’s lab at University of California-Berkeley, Abelson’s mother, Elle, sent him money to purchase a suit. However, he had a better idea, according to Schudel’s account. He used the money to buy uranium at the scientific supply store. Within two months, he built a spectrometer and found a way to isolate a fissionable form of uranium.

Abelson’s father, Olaf, graduated from WSC (’05 Civil Engr.). Phillip completed two degrees (’33 Chem., ’35 M.S. Physics). He and Neva (’34 Chem.) married in 1936, when both were in school at Berkeley, where Phillip earned his doctorate (’39 Nuclear Physics).

Abelson joined the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., in 1939, and served as president, 1971-78. He was acting executive director of the AAAS in 1974, 1975, and 1984.

His nine books include Enough of Pessimism (1985), a collection of 100 of his best editorials. Among the many honors he received were the President’s National Medal of Science, a Distinguished Public Service Award from the National Science Foundation, and the Science Achievement Award from the American Medical Association.

In 1962 he was the first recipient of WSU’s highest honor, the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award. Neva received the same award in 1989. Abelson last visited WSU in September 2002 for the renaming of Science Hall in his and Neva’s honor. Beginning in 1990, they established graduate fellowship endowments for WSU science students, an endowed professorship in physics, and a graduate fellowship in liberal arts.

“WSU will miss Phil. In fact, the whole world will . . . ,” WSU president V. Lane Rawlins said of Abelson’s passing. “He was a great scientist and human being.”