Physics Department

Vanderbilt’s commitment to physics dates back to 1875, when Landon Garland, a Physics and Mathematics Professor became the first Chancellor. Vanderbilt was the 5th University in America to offer graduate work and advanced degrees in Physics. (The other four included Yale, Pennsylvania, Harvard, Columbia, and Vanderbilt tied with Princeton, in increasing year order). Johns Hopkins (JHU) opened in 1876, one year after Vanderbilt, with a significantly larger endowment and bigger regional base and its program grew more rapidly. The first Vanderbilt advanced degree was awarded to Charles Thornburg in Physics and Astronomy in 1884, but a long time elapsed before a second degree was awarded.
Landon Garland also served as the first Chair of the Department (1875-1895). He was followed by John Daniel (1895-1939), although the duties in the later years were shared with other members of the Physics Department. Astronomy was the Department’s major focus in the early years when large investments were made in telescope-based research. Francis Slack joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1928 following several years studying and doing research in theoretical Physics in Germany. He became Chair of the Department of Physics in 1939. During his tenure, Max Delbruck, a theoretical physicist was recruited to the Department as a lecturer. (Discussed further below). During World War, U.S. citizens on the Physics faculty were involved with the atomic energy project at Columbia working on the development of porous barriers for separating uranium isotopes. The separation process was developed at Columbia University by Professors Francis Slack and Newton Underwood and two of their graduate students Ernest Jones and William Skinner, while they were on leave from Vanderbilt. Later, Ernie Jones and Bob Lagemann  joined the Vanderbilt faculty and Lagemann subsequently  served as Chair of the Physics Department, and then as Dean of the Graduate School. Advanced doctorate degrees were few in number until after 1946. The first Ph.D. thesis after WW II involved an extension of the process for the gaseous diffusion separation of uranium isotopes used at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Bob Lagemann became Chair in 1951, and served in that role until 1970 when he was followed by Wendell Holladay. Bob became Dean of the Graduate School and Wendell went on to be Provost in the late 1970s. Thereafter, the role of Department Chair rotated at more frequent intervals between  Physics Professors, as prescribed by the general rules of governance in the College. Lagemann wrote a book (“To Quarks and Quasar: A History of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University”) that  documents the history of the Physics Department thru 1994.

Biological and medical collaborations were increasingly prominent since 1940. The first major success began unexpectedly in 1940 due to political problems in Europe. IThat was when the Department hired Max Delbruck, a German theoretical physicist with great  credentials in biophysics who had emigrated from Germany to the USA in 1938. Max worked at Cal Tech initially on a 2 year fellowship and when it ran out, the Rockefeller Foundation assisted him in finding a Physics teaching post. Vanderbilt had advertised an opening for an Instructor. After Vanderbilt obtained partial support for his salary from the Foundation, Delbruck was hired. He was a brilliant internationally recognized theoretical physicist whose major interest had turned from quantum mechanics and theory to biology/biophysics/genetics. Delbruck taught courses in the Physics Department, and gave the first course in Quantum Mechanics at Vanderbilt. His main research interest was in bacteriophage  genetics which he pursued in a laboratory in the Biology building. After 7 years at Vanderbilt, his program needs had grown and he needed $300K to expand his program, but the Physics Department did not have the funds to meet his needs, and with dismay on both sides, he left in 1947 to return to Cal Tech where they were able to support for his work. It was a good decision for Delbruck and for Caltech, as 26 years later in 1969, he was awarded the Nobel prize for the work on bacterial genetics part of which he and his colleagues (Salvador Luria, and Alfred Hershey) had begun while Max was at Vanderbilt. The collaboration was fostered during many summer leaves at Cold Springs laboratory during and after Max’s Vanderbilt stay. A detailed story of Delbruck’s life was presented by John Wikswo at a VU conference memorializing Delbruck.

The Physics Department has a long and strong commitment to nuclear and high energy physics programs. Joe Hamilton, has directed the nuclear physics program since his arrival in 1958. Many of his graduate students did their thesis work with Randy Brill in nuclear medicine  on tracer-related research topics. Advanced counting and analysis equipment was used for shared research tasks. Charlie Roos led the high energy physics program after his arrival in 1959, and was always a strong supporter of nuclear medicine-related projects. The high energy physics group acquired and analyzed data from research at the large accelerator laboratories in the USA and in Europe. At Nashville, graduate students and their wives were heavily involved in digitizing bubble chamber films in the search for new particles/phenomena. The Vanderbilt nuclear medicine and physics research groups took advantage of hardware loaned from national lab equipment pools, along with software used in support of the demanding data handling tasks faced by the accelerator community. Between 1958, and 1980 there were 10 PhDs and 10 MS degrees awarded to Physics and Engineering students whose theses were done in collaboration with nuclear medicine faculty. Most of the students were funded by the AEC under the Health Physics Training Program.

George Meneely had joint appointments in Physics and Medicine, as did Randy Brill when he came in 1964. Randy’s primary appointment was in the Medicine Department of the Medical School along with a joint appointment in Radiology. Randy gave a Radiation Biophysics course after Otto Bluh left in the late 1960s. The first “Medical Physics” faculty member hired by the Physics Department was Bob Baglan (1970-73). He came as an Assistant Professor from LLNL, as the Physics Department agreed to augment the link between the Medical School and Physics Department. Baglan’s Ph.D was in Nuclear Chemistry/Nuclear Physics from U.C. Berkeley. Bob came with a strong recommendation from Edward Teller (Director of the LLNL). Bob supervised a number of graduate students, and was a strong contributor to the Physics Department. When he left in 1973 (to pursue a degree in Medicine), the Physics Department supported and hired a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Medical Physics program, Jerome Wagner: (1973-74). Jerry taught a  Physics course, and mentored student research. The so-called Medical Physics position was competed for by the high energy and nuclear physics programs in 1974, and nuclear physics won. During a mini sabbatical in Physics at Vanderbilt, Alvin Weinberg expressed strong support for the Medical Physics program, which some in the Department felt was too applied. He commented to the Physics Department that if they did not have a medical physics program they would have had to create one themselves. This did not sway the decision, and with this loss in funding Dr. Wagner left and the Medical Physics position was lost. At the same time, in 1974, Physics appointments were given to Ron Price and Jim Patton, both with prior  Vanderbilt  Ph.Ds (High Energy and Nuclear Physics, respectively). Ed Siegel joined the Radiology Department (Radiation Biology program) (1976-1988) with a PhD in Biophysics from Stanford, and in 1979 he moved his research lab to the Physics Department.

Physics embarked on building what was to become a strong program in Living State Physics with the hire of John Wikswo: (1977- ). Randy and Charley Roos travelled to Stanford, and interviewed John who then worked with low temperature physicists and physicians to measuring and analyzing the low magnetic signals (SQUID magnetometers) at the body surface, so-called magneto-encephalography (MEG), or magnet- cardiography. After coming to Vanderbilt,  Wikswo developed an important well recognized program directed at understanding molecular level processes.

The Physics Department sought and obtained grant support for the development of a Free Electron Laser program (FEL), and brought in new faculty with expertise in that area. Glenn Edwards: 1986-, Charles Brau: 19xx. The FEL device brought accelerator technology on site at Vanderbilt for the first time, and offered the opportunity for a number of potentially important diagnostic imaging and therapeutic applications. Diagnostic applications were explored in conjunction with the Radiology Department (Frank Carroll, a Radiologist formerly in the nuclear navy), and surgical faculty interested in the fine cutting potential and illuminating properties of the electrons and the associated UV radiations explored therapeutic uses.

Charles Maguire, Vicki Greene, Marcus Mendenhall, and Wil Johns were hired  with strong interest and involvement in large and small detector programs at the Fermi and Brookhaven National Labs.  A long standing Physics collaboration with Fisk was extended with Arnold Burger (VU Physics and Radiology with joint appointments), and a deep interest in semi conductor detector materials, primarily CZT. The most recent hire in the program is Todd Peterson, a Nuclear Physicist with extensive experience in radiation detectors and high resolution animal imaging systems. He joined the Physics and Radiology faculty in 2004 from the University of Arizona with expertise in solid state silicon detectors with broad knowledge  of nuclear physics and applied imaging technology.

Vanderbilt University established a distinguished University Faculty Professorship in 2004, which brought John Gore a Medical Physicist with extensive experience in MRI applications primarily relating to increased understanding of cognitive processes. He brought with him a team of 10 colleagues and students from Yale, and obtained funding for a new building dedicated to biomedical imaging Sciences. Clearly a major strength of the nuclear related programs at Vanderbilt is the close proximity and good working relationships between the different programs in the College, Graduate School, School of Engineering and the Medical School. A description of progress in this area is best addressed by reference to the VUIIS web site. The program has grown exponentially since his arrival, and by 2014 there were approximately 40 Graduate, and 40 Post Graduate doctoral students working in the VUIIS.

→ List of Graduate Students:

  • R.E. Johnston, PhD. Physics 1968. Physical Problems Inherent in Quantitative In Vivo Dosimetry of Radiopharmaceuticals.
  • E.C. Cook, PhD. Elect. Engin. 1968. A Digital Data Acquisition System for Use in Nuclear Medicine Scanning and Whole‑Body Counting.
  • A.B. Davis, MS. Physics 1968. Simulation of Calcium Kinetics in Normal Humans Utilizing SAAM – A Digital Computer Program Modified for use on an IBM 7094 System.
  • S. Riggs, MS. Physics 1968. Applications of Optical Data Processing in Nuclear Medicine ‑ 2D Spatial Filtering.
  • M.A. Pick, MS. Physics 1968. Analysis of Acetyl Choline in Biological Samples by Neutron Activation Analysis.
  • C.V. Kosik, MS. Physics 1971. Experimental Model for the Evaluation of Different Tumor-Localizing Radiopharmaceuticals.
  • R. Rolfes, MS. Physics 1971. Comparisons of the Response Characteristics of a Lithium Drifted Germanium Detector and a Sodium-Iodide Detector Scanning System.
  • J.R. Watts, PhD Physics 1971. Methods for Quantitative Assay of Radioactivity in Man.
  • J. Gerth, MS. Elec. Engin. 1971. Frequency Domain Deconvolution of Spatially Variant and Invariant Radionuclide Images.
  • N.C. Dyer, PhD Physics 1972. Human Fetal Radiation Dose from Fe-59 Administered to the Mother During Pregnancy.
  • J. Erickson, PhD Physics 1972. Applications of Computers and Digital Techniques in Clinical and Investigative Nuclear Medicine.
  • J. Patton, PhD Physics 1972. New Approaches to the Imaging of Distributions of Stable and Radioactive Tracers within the Body.
  • R.P. Koshakji, PhD Biochemistry 1972. Biochemical Mechanisms and the Possible Role of Minerals in Salicylate Toxicology.
  • Y. Hwang, MS. Physics 1973. I127 Fluorescence Studies and I-125 Emission Studies Using a Lithium-Drifted Silicon Detection System.
  • J.D. Johannes, MS. Oper. Res. 1975. A Computer-aided Nuclear Medicine Patient Scheduling and Reporting System.
  • W.L. Dunn, MS. Physics 1975. Time of Flight Localization of Positron-Emitting Isotopes.
  • M.B. Hertz, PhD Chem Engin. 1975. Dosimetric and Flow Analyses of a 100Ci S90 Blood Irradiator.
  • J. Jones, PhD Physics 1978. In‑Vivo Evaluation of Standard Man Model Absorbed Fractions Using Tc-99mSC.
  • E. Eastwold, MS. Physics 1976. Radiocontaminants in Tc-99m.
  • D.R. Pickens III, MS. Bio Engin. 1977. The Design, Construction and Preliminary Testing of a Mutually Orthogonal Coincident Focal Point Tomographic Brain Scanner.
  • J.D. Johannes, PhD Comp. Sci. 1977. Automatic Thyroid Diagnosis via Simulation of Physician Judgment.
  • K.H. Larsen, PhD Physics 1979. Measurement of Regional and Total Body Bone Mineral Content In-Vivo Using Transmission Scanning and Neutron Activation Analysis.