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John Gardner Phillips (1917–2001)

Published onJan 01, 2002
John Gardner Phillips (1917–2001)

John Gardner Phillips died, after a brief period of failing health, on 1 June 2001. He was an active member of the faculty in the Astronomy Department on the Berkeley campus of the University of California from 1950 until well after his retirement in 1987.

Phillips was born in West Haven (now part of New Haven), Connecticut on 9 January 1917. He was the eldest of four children; he had two brothers and a sister. His father, Ray Edmund Phillips, was a Congregationalist missionary who was assigned to South Africa soon after John was born. John's childhood was spent in Johannesburg where he received his early education. Phillips returned to the United States to attend Carleton College, graduating in 1939, and completing an MS degree in 1942 at the University of Arizona. During World War II, he served as an Instructor of Meteorology at the University of Chicago. After a brief period working in an industrial laboratory, he was accepted in the astrophysics program at the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory. Studying the spectroscopy of molecules of astronomical importance with some of the foremost astrophysicists of that time, he earned a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Chicago. His 1948 dissertation on the diatomic carbon molecule was based on his research under the direction of Gerhard Herzberg. After two years as an instructor at Yerkes, Phillips joined the Astronomy faculty of the University of California at Berkeley in 1950. In 1960 he was advanced to Professor of Astronomy, and served as Chairman of the Department from 1964 to 1967 and again from 1971 to 1974 before retiring in 1987.

Phillips' scientific contributions were in two main areas, the analysis of the spectra of molecules, and in the design and construction of advanced instrumentation to speed and improve such analyses. He was an early advocate of the importance of computers and made excellent use of them in his work. Phillips published more than 60 scientific papers, many of them in collaboration with Professor Sumner Davis of the Berkeley Physics Department. In addition, Phillips published the bi-monthly “Newsletter of Molecular Analyses” for more than 40 years, first in collaboration with F.A. Jenkins, and later with Sumner Davis. This newsletter, which circulated to several hundred spectroscopists and libraries internationally, reviewed current molecular analyses by spectroscopists worldwide; it continues today under new auspices.

Professor Phillips taught many courses, both specialized astrophysics and general astronomy, in the Department of Astronomy at Berkeley. Over a period of more than 40 years, from shortly after he came to Berkeley until shortly before his death, he taught astronomy to many hundreds of students in a University Extension correspondence course. He strongly believed that such teaching, which took a great deal of time, was an important duty for departments to perform and a very useful service to the students who were frequently far from the University. With Dinsmore Alter and Gerald Clemence, Phillips co-authored a popular astronomy book, "Pictorial Astronomy," that has gone through many editions. Through his service on committees, boards, and commissions, Phillips made many contributions to the scientific and academic communities. His advice was frequently sought. In addition to long service as the Treasurer and in other capacities for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Phillips was Associate Editor of “Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics” from 1966 to 1989, President of Commission 14 of the International Astronomical Union (Atomic and Molecular Data), Representative of the International Astronomical Union on the Triple Commission for Spectroscopy (composed of three International organizations), Member of the Advisory Panel of the National Bureau of Standards (Heat Division), and many others. As a Professor, he was a member of many University Committees ranging from the Physical Sciences Advisory Council to the Astronomy Representative at the School of Education.

John Phillips is survived by his three daughters, Jane Phillips of El Cerrito, California, Cindy Hart of Edmonds, Washington, and Gail Phillips of Berkeley, California, and by his granddaughter, Diana Hart of Edmonds, Washington. His wife of 55 years, Margaret Butler Phillips, predeceased him by eighteen months. His many friends, colleagues, and former students will always remember his gentle humor, kind advice, and quiet dedication with appreciation and fond regret.

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