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John P. Davidson (1924–2010)

Published onDec 01, 2011
John P. Davidson (1924–2010)

Nuclear physicist and astrophysicist John P. Davidson died at his home on January 10, 2010. He was born on July 22, 1924 in Los Angeles, California. Jack followed his high school interests in rocketry and physical science to the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physics in June 1948 after serving a stint from 1943 to 1946 in the Army Signal Corps in the European Theater of Operations. Following the war and graduation, Jack embarked on a graduate career in nuclear physics at Washington University, St. Louis. While there, he also initiated what became a life-long partnership with Mary Reiser dedicated to issues of social justice by co-founding an organization to lobby for university admission of African-American students, a policy change opposed by physicist and Chancellor, Arthur Holly Compton. Mary and Jack married in 1949.

Jack Davidson’s academic career began shortly after completion of his PhD in 1952 under Eugene Feenberg. He taught in Brazil and in Norway before becoming an assistant professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1957. He stayed at RPI until 1966, at which time he joined the faculty of the University of Kansas where he served faculty and students until his retirement in 1996. His teaching, research and administrative career at KU was distinguished by a growing commitment to the astronomy and astrophysics program. Not only did he foster its growth during his tenure as department chair (1977-1989), he directed a residential summer science program in astronomy for high school students at KU for nearly 10 years in the 1970's. He combined his background in nuclear physics and his fascination with astrophysics into a research program to study elemental abundance anomalies in stellar spectra, authoring with Don Bord several pioneering applications of wavelength coincidence statistics to the ultraviolet spectra of peculiar A stars.

At KU, Jack assumed leadership roles in the local chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and served as director of a DOE sponsored research competition for high school students: the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. His commitment to public education issues and science literacy led him to seek election to the Kansas Board of Education and then gain election as a member of the Lawrence, Kansas school board from 1999 to 2003, a turbulent period for science education within the state of Kansas. He will be fondly remembered and missed by the numerous students he advised and taught, as well as the several astronomers whose careers he fostered at the University of Kansas.

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