Remembering Roger Stuewer

Roger H. Stuewer, Founding Director of the Program in History of Science and Technology at the University of Minnesota, died at age 87 on July 28, 2022 in his home in New Brighton. For decades he was a leading light in the history of modern physics, a mentor to younger scholars, and a friend to many both in the history and philosophy of science and in physics. 

Roger received both his bachelor’s degree (1958) and his Ph.D. (1968)  from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His bachelor’s degree was in science education, and his doctorate was a joint degree with physics and history of science. His advisor in physics was the nuclear physicist Heinz Barschall (1915–1997) and in history of science Erwin Hiebert (1919–2012). His dissertation was on the discovery of the Compton effect, which would form the basis for his first book, The Compton Effect: Turning Point in Physics (1975).

Roger was fond of telling the story of how he had gone on the job market in 1967, even before he officially had his PhD in hand, receiving 35 job offers! How times have changed, his story would invariably end. He accepted an intriguing offer from the University of Minnesota: Herbert Feigl (1902–1988), founder and Director of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, had found out about Roger through Erwin Hiebert and wanted him to join his center. Feigl asked Mort Hamermesh (1915–2003), head of the School of Physics and Astronomy, to create a faculty position for Roger in physics. This planted the seed for what in 1972 would become Minnesota’s Program in History of Science and Technology, with historians embedded with scientists and engineers. It is now widely known in the community as the Minnesota Model.

 In 1971 Roger left for a position at Boston University but returned a year later, when the university made funds available for the creation of a program in the history of science and technology. He received an immediate commitment for an additional position, which was filled by the historian of early modern physics Alan Shapiro who subsequently became Roger’s successor as director of the Program. Gerry Sheppard, Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the University, made creating a program in history of science and technology its highest priority for a grant from the Hill Family Foundation (now the Northwest Area Foundation). The Foundation awarded funds for three years that included two additional positions, a secretary, and a colloquium fund. The University agreed to continue the funding after three years. The two new positions were in the history of  biology (Malcolm Kottler)  and the history of technology (Edwin T.  Layton (1929-2009)).  As Director of the program, Roger played an important role in the establishment of two institutions closely affiliated with the program, the Bakken Museum and the Babbage Institute, recruiting the founding directors of both.

In 1977, Roger organized a symposium on nuclear physics in the 1930s in Minnesota, with many of the luminaries in the field attending (some of them not long before they died), and edited its proceedings: Nuclear Physics in Retrospect (University of Minnesota Press, 1979). This was followed by many publications on the history of nuclear physics. This is the work Roger is probably best known for and the area in which he established himself as the world’s leading authority. He synthesized much of this work in a recent monograph aimed at a broader audience: The Age of Innocence: Nuclear Physics Between the First and Second World Wars (Oxford, 2018). In December 2018, Roger gave a wonderful non-technical précis of this book in the joint colloquium of the Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine and the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, which he reprised in the weekly colloquium of the School of Physics and Astronomy a month later. In his books and papers, Roger was ahead of the curve in several respects.  First, long before this became standard in the field, he made extensive use of archival sources—notebooks, manuscripts, and correspondence. Second, at a time when history of physics was still dominated by history of theory, he paid close attention to experiment. Third, rather than focusing exclusively on conceptual developments, Roger always carefully considered the institutional history.

In addition to his research and his teaching, from offering wildly popular classes on history of 19th- and 20th-century physics for a mix of undergraduate and graduate students in physics and history and philosophy of science to supervising nine superb dissertations (Charles Atchley, Kai-Henrik Barth, Fred Fellows, Richard Gehrenbeck, John Gustafson, Karen Johnson, Al Martinez, Michael Reidy, and Ioanna Semendeferi), Roger did much to help shape the community of history of physics. The common denominator in these community-building efforts was his determination to bring historians and philosophers of science and physicists together. He was a much sought-after speaker at both physics and history of science conferences. He also lectured to appreciative audiences during guest professorships in Vienna and Graz (1989) and Amsterdam (1998). Wherever he went, he made lifelong friends among physicists and historians and philosophers of science alike.  

In 1978, Roger joined the Advisory Committee on History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics (AIP), on which he served for 15 years. That same year, he became the editor of the resource letters of American Journal of Physics, the journal of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). He did not step down from that position until 2015, long after his retirement from his faculty position in 2000. During those 37 years, he published 183 resource letters, a record unlikely to ever be broken. 

The friendship of Roger and Helga with Nobel laureate  John H. Van Vleck (1899–1980) and his wife Abigail was key to establishing the Annual Van Vleck Lecture Series in the School of Physics and Astronomy in 1983. Now in its 43rd year, this prestigious lecture series has brought many prominent physicists, including several Nobel laureates, to Minnesota. 

Another friendship of Roger’s, with Lee Gohlike of the Outing Lodge near Stillwater, Minnesota, led to the establishment of the Seven Pines Symposia, bringing together leading physicists (again including some Nobel laureates), philosophers and historians of science to discuss topics in the foundations of physics (with the occasional foray into biology). The first Seven Pines Symposium took place in 1997 in the lodge near Lewis, Wisconsin after which the symposium is named. In 2001, it moved to the Outing Lodge, where in May this year Seven Pines XXIV was held. 

In 1999, together with his good friend John S. Rigden (1934–2017), Roger started a new journal, Physics in Perspective, which he edited until 2013. The acknowledgments of just about every paper appearing in this journal during Roger’s tenure mention his meticulous copy-editing of the manuscript (I still have the marked-up copy of the manuscript of my one paper in Physics in Perspective covered in red). 

Roger also played an important role in the Forum on History of Physics of the American Physical Society (APS). He served as Chair of the Forum’s Executive Committee in 1987–88 and again in 1998–99 and as its representative to the APS Council in  2006–9. He also worked hard to establish the Pais Prize, a special APS/AIP prize for history of physics, named for physicist-turned-historian-of-physics Abraham Pais (1918–2000). It was only fitting that Roger himself won this prize in 2013 for, as the citation says, “his pioneering historical studies of the photon concept and nuclear physics, and for his leadership in bringing physicists into writing the history of physics by helping to organize and develop supporting institutions and publications.”

Of the many honors he was awarded, the Pais Prize may have been the one Roger cherished the most, together with the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Department of Physics of the University of Wisconsin in 2014, both prizes underscoring the deep commitment that runs like a red thread through Roger’s academic career to bridging the worlds of physics and history and philosophy of science.   

Roger was born September 12, 1934 in Bonduel, Wisconsin. After two years as an undergraduate majoring in accounting, he joined the army in 1954, spending most of his time stationed in Munich. He was discharged in 1956 and resumed his undergraduate studies in Madison, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1958. After teaching high-school physics and mathematics for a year, he used the one year of academic education he had left under the G.I. Bill to study in Vienna. This is where he met Helga von Schmeidel, whom he married in April 1960. With Helga, Roger returned to the US later that year, taking a job as physics instructor at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. This is where the couple’s two children were born: their son Marcus (1961) and their daughter Suzanne (1962–2010). 

Memorials may be sent to 124 Windsor Ct, New Brighton, MN 55112.


-Michel Janssen and Alan Shapiro