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PMA, obituary
11/19/2004 08:00:00

Manhattan Project Physicist Robert Bacher Dies

PASADENA, Calif.-Robert Fox Bacher, a renowned California Institute of Technology physicist who headed the experimental physics division at Los Alamos Laboratory during the Manhattan Project, died Thursday, November 18, in Montecito, California. He was 99.

Bacher was affiliated with MIT's Radiation Laboratory when the Manhattan Project began, and took a leave of absence to head the experimental physics division and, once the bomb-production phase began, the bomb physics division. After the war he became one of the first members of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and also served on the President's Science Advisory Committee during the Eisenhower Administration.

A close associate of former Caltech president Lee DuBridge while both were at MIT, Bacher joined the Caltech faculty in 1949, three years after DuBridge became president. Bacher remained at Caltech for the remainder of his career, serving as chairman of the physics, math, and astronomy division from 1949 to 1962, as provost from 1962 to 1969, and as vice president and provost from 1969 to 1970. He took emeritus status in 1976.

His colleague Robert Christy, also a former provost and emeritus professor of physics at Caltech who worked on the Manhattan Project, said that, next to Robert Andrews Millikan, Bacher was the person most important to the early growth of Caltech's reputation in physics and astronomy. "He was responsible for building Caltech physics after the war, and for making Caltech physics what it is today," Christy said.

Born August 31, 1905, in Loudonville, Ohio, Bacher earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan in 1926 and his doctorate in 1930. He first came to Caltech in 1930 for a one-year appointment as a National Research Council Fellow, and afterward held postdoctoral positions at MIT and the University of Michigan before joining the faculty at Columbia University in 1934. He moved to the Cornell University physics department in 1935, where he became a full professor of physics and director of the Laboratory of Nuclear Studies. He was affiliated with MIT's Radiation Laboratory and the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos from 1940 to 1945, while on the Cornell faculty.

As chairman of the Caltech Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, Bacher shaped the program in the burgeoning field of high-energy physics, and was responsible for bringing both Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann to Caltech. He also initiated the program in radio astronomy with the creation of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, which to this day is one of the leading radio astronomy facilities in the world.

Bacher was president of the American Physical Society in 1964, president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics from 1969 to 1972, and winner of the President's Medal for Merit in 1946. In addition, he was a member of the U.S. delegation to the nuclear test ban negotiations in 1958, and a member at various times of committees and panels for the State Department, Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the National Academy of Sciences.

Bacher's wife of 64 years, Jean Dow Bacher, died in 1994. He is survived by a son, Andrew Dow Bacher of Bloomington, Indiana; a daughter, Martha Bacher Eaton of Santa Barbara; and two grandchildren.

Written by Robert Tindol