Physics Department History

Our History

Wayman Crow Hall, built in 1934, was designed by two Washington University architects, George W. Spearl and James P. Jamieson, to house the Department of Physics. Because of the nature of the experiments conducted, the building was constructed in such a manner that it is not subject to the Earth's natural vibrations, and contains a vertical shaft that extends the full height of the building for experiments that involve the study of falling objects. Construction for the building was made possible by $700,000 in gifts.


The building was dedicated in 1934 as Crow Hall, named for Wayman Crow (pictured at right), the state senator who drafted the University's charter and secured its passage through the state legislature. Before entering the state senate, Crow ran a wholesale dry goods business in St. Louis.

When Crow drafted the University's charter he named his close friend William Greenleaf Eliot as chairman of the original Board of Trustees. Eliot served in that capacity from 1854 until his death in 1887. Wayman Crow was also on the board from 1854 until his death in 1885.

Above photo: The Fifth Solvay Conference, on Electrons and Photons. Arthur Holly Compton is seated in the second row, fourth from the right, directly behind Albert Einstein and Paul Langevin. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons. More details

Arthur Holly Compton


 Dr. Compton's association with the University began when he was appointed Wayman Crow Professor of Physics and Chairman of the Physics Department in 1919. During his four years as a faculty member, Dr. Compton did the experimental work which resulted in the award of the Nobel Prize for Physics (1927) for the Compton Effect, being the first Washington University faculty member to be so honored. In 1923 Dr. Compton left Washington University to join the faculty of the University of Chicago, and he returned to Washington University in 1945 to serve as Chancellor.

During his eight years as Chancellor, Dr. Compton brought many outstanding faculty members to the University, particularly in the sciences, and in so doing began Washington University's rise to national prominence.

Eugene Feenberg


Eugene Feenberg was Wayman Crow Professor of Physics at Washington University in St. Louis from 1946 to 1977 and is regarded as a highly pivotal figure in the promotion of many-body physics. Feenberg is noted for his contributions in quantum fluids, quantum mechanics, nuclear shell structure, elementary excitations, energy perturbation, and helium atoms.

Eugene Feenberg emerges in the historical records of twentieth-century science as a leading pioneer in the application of quantum mechanics to nuclei and superfluid helium. In seeking an understanding of the behavior of these systems, he was not content with phenomenological descriptions or oversimplified models made popular by their tractability. Rather, his major contributions stemmed from a continuing quest (almost in his own words) for - "Quantitative microscopic prediction of the observable properties of strongly interacting quantum many-body systems under realistic conditions of interaction, density, and temperature."

This is often referred to as ab initio theory (although the term has seen much abuse in recent years).

For more, read The Legacy Of Eugene Feenberg At The Centenary Of His Birth by John Clark.

Historical Milestones

WUSTL Shield, decorative

WashU builds a "superior telescope"

Funds are acquired to build a "superior telescope." The 6-inch refractor, made by Fitz & Co. and later refigured by Alvan Clark & Sons, is still in service, providing accessible astronomical viewing to the St. Louis Community.

Francis Nipher becomes Chair

Francis Nipher becomes Chair of Physics and the first Wayman Crow Professor. His nationally recognized research is diverse and includes electromagnetism, weather forecasting, and early psychophysical experiments on short-term memory. He introduces one of the nation's first laboratory courses in physics.

Washington University moves to the Hilltop Campus

The Hilltop Campus is established to the west of the grounds of the 1904 World's Fair, and serves as the venue for intellectual activities for the fair, including public lectures by Boltzmann, Poincare, and Rutherford. The fairgrounds ultimately become Forest Park, which now separates the Danforth and Medical campuses. Physics resides in Eads Hall from 1904-1934, one of the original structures of the Hilltop campus adjoining the main quadrangle

Arthur Holly Compton is awarded the Nobel Prize for fundamental research in quantum physics carried out at Washington University.

Cyclotron built

The first cyclotron to call the University home was built in 1940 and housed in an underground chamber adjacent to the west end of the powerhouse. Early in 1942, the cyclotron was put under government control as part of the Manhattan Project, seeking plutonium in World War II. The first isolated plutonium in the world, which would barely fit on the head of a pin, was accomplished with this cyclotron.

Magic Angle Spinning

Richard Norberg and Irving Lowe invent magic-angle spinning to narrow nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) lines and study free-induction decay in solids, providing the groundwork for Fourier-transform NMR.

Moon Material Studied

The Laboratory for Space Physics receives for analysis some of the first samples of material returned from the moon by the Apollo astronauts.

McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences Established

McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences was founded in 1975 through a munificent endowment from Mr. James S. McDonnell of the McDonnell Aerospace Foundation, under the stewardship of William H. Danforth, Chancellor, and Robert M. Walker, McDonnell Professor of Physics, who served as its Director until 1999 and guided it to academic excellence.

The Heavy Nuclei Experiment is launched

The Heavy Nuclei Experiment, the largest cosmic-ray detector ever flown in space, is launched on the third High Energy Astronomy Observatory satellite. Washington University professor Martin Israel serves as co-principal investigator, along with coprincipals at Caltech and University of Minnesota.

Pioneers in Astrophysics Study Stardust

Robert Walker’s Laboratory of Space Physics pioneers a new field of laboratory astrophysics, based on the revolutionary SIMS ion probe, employed to analyze presolar grains (literally stardust) isolated from meteorites. (SIMS = Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry)

The Cosmic Ray Isotope Spectrometer is launched

The Cosmic Ray Isotope Spectrometer is launched aboard the NASA Advanced Composition Explorer satellite. Robert Binns, Martin Israel, and Joseph Klarmann are coinvestigators along with scientists from other institutions. This instrument continues to make key measurements relevant to the origin of cosmic rays.

Institute of Materials Science and Engineering Established

A new Institute of Materials Science and Engineering (IMSE) is established. The IMSE brings together more than thirty research groups in Arts & Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Medical School. Kenneth Kelton is appointed as the first Director.

Center for Quantum Sensors Established

Historical Perspectives