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George Russell Harrison Biography

George Russell Harrison

Professor of Physics 1930-1964
Professor of Physics Emeritus 1964-1979
Director of Research laboratory
for Experimental Physics 1930-1942
Dean of the School of Science 1942-1964
Dean Emeritus of the School of Science 1964-1979

George Russell Harrison was born on July 14, 1898 in San Diego, California. His early years and schooling were spent in California. Young George's interest in physics may have been fostered by friends of his father the Varian brothers, who were later to invent the Klystron and to head the electronics firm in Palo Alto bearing their name. Harrison entered Stanford University in 1915, and chose physics as his major field of study. Despite a brief interruption in his studies, associated with World War I, he received the bachelor's degree on schedule in June 1919.

That autumn he enrolled in the Stanford graduate school as a candidate for the master's degree in physics. During this period he was chosen to tutor Herbert Hoover, Jr., and for several years he lived on the Stanford campus with the Hoover family, thereby beginning a long and close friendship. He received the master's degree in 1920 and continued on for the doctorate. A new Physics Department chairman, David L. Webster, had recently arrived from Harvard University and influenced his decision to enter the field of spectroscopy. His doctoral thesis, supervised by Webster, was completed in the spring of 1922, and was the basis of a paper, "The Absorption of Light by Sodium and Potassium Vapors," published later that year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

His promise as a research physicist led to the award of a National Research Council Fellowship for work with the renowned spectroscopist of the vacuum ultraviolet, Professor Theodore Lyman of Harvard. The two years he spent in Lyman's laboratory (1923-25) deepened and broadened his knowledge of the world of physics. He then returned to Stanford where, as an assistant professor, he began building up a laboratory, which soon included a 21-foot vacuum spectrograph, the largest of its day. He was promoted to associate professor in 1927.

In 1930 Dr. Harrison accepted the offer of a professorship of experimental physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by its new president, Karl T. Compton. Compton was a specialist in vacuum spectroscopy and perhaps had been attracted by Dr. Harrison's early work. In any case, the two men had this common interest, which resulted in the founding of the MIT Spectroscopy Laboratory, the first building designed and constructed for the particular needs of spectroscopy.

Dr. Harrison's activities in the Spectroscopy Laboratory are described in his own words in the accompanying history. The most noteworthy of his many achievements there were the development of a high-speed automatic comparator for the recording of intensities and wavelengths of spectral lines (1938), the compilation of the MIT Wavelength Tables (1939), and the invention of the echelle spectrograph (1949). He was the first to devise a practical ruling engine, servo-mechanically controlled by means of optical interferometric techniques, which he used to produce diffraction gratings of unprecedented optical quality and size (1948-72). He was the author or coauthor of more than 100 scientific papers. In 1948 he published the well-known text, Practical Spectroscopy, with Richard C. Lord and John R. Loofbourow. He also wrote books for the layman on scientific and engineering subjects, the best known of which, Atoms in Action (1939), was translated from English into more than a dozen other languages.

During World War II Dr. Harrison was chief of the Optics Division of the National Defense Research Committee (1942-43), and later head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development's Office of Field Service in the Pacific Theater (1944-45). He was awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom and the Presidential Medal of Merit for his contributions.

Dr. Harrison became Dean of Science at MIT in 1942 and oversaw the postwar development of the School of Science until his retirement in 1964. He had a clear sense of the structure and purpose of MIT, and he provided the conceptual leadership during this 22-year period that brought the School of Science to its eminent position among the world's foremost academic institutions. His encouragement and support of science, not only for its own sake, but also as the indispensable partner of engineering, were basic to fundamental changes in the character of the Institute.

Dean Harrison received many medals, awards, and honorary degrees for his scientific accomplishments, including the Rumford Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute, the Ives and Mees Medals and the Meggers Award of the Optical Society of America, and the Pittsburgh Spectroscopy Award. He was one of six honorary members of the Optical Society, and was a Fellow of the American Philosophical Society, the American Physical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Australian Academy of Science, and he held many high offices in these and other scholarly organizations.

Dean Harrison's devotion to his research until his death in 1979 was characteristic of his disciplined mind and strong work ethic. In the years of his retirement, it was a common sight for workers in the Spectroscopy Laboratory to see him bounding down the basement corridor with the vigor and sense of purpose, which were his trademark. Throughout his career he was admired and respected for his candor and fairness. His dominant thought seemed always to be, "If it is worth doing, how can it best be done?" Ingrained in his nature was the desire to experiment, to work with his hands, to invent new devices for the solution of seemingly insoluble problems. For George Harrison, inventing, as he used that term, was a challenge and a source of pleasure. Naming the Spectroscopy Laboratory in his honor is a fitting tribute, and will serve as an example of excellence to which students of science can aspire.