Gift Establishes Roger and Helga Stuewer Library

Professor Emeritus Roger Stuewer, historian of physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy and founder of the University’s Program in History of Science and Technology, and his wife Helga, have donated their large and valuable collection of books and papers to the School.

The collection is primarily focused on the history of physics in the 19th and 20th centuries and will be displayed in the Roger and Helga Stuewer Library, to be housed on the second and third floors of John Tate Hall, with items of particular interest in rotating exhibits in the lobby outside of B50 beginning in 2023.

Professor Stuewer was born in Bonduel, Wisconsin in 1934. He attended two years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying to be an accountant. In 1954 he was drafted into the army, where he was stationed in Munich, Germany for a year. He returned to Wisconsin on the G.I. Bill, and completed his undergraduate degree, changing his major to education. He taught high school for a year before attending graduate school at the University of Vienna in 1959. There he met his wife Helga. They began collecting books while living in Austria in the early 60s. The couple made the acquaintance of many booksellers in Europe who were aware of Roger’s interest in the history of physics. “Everywhere we traveled in Europe-London, Rome, Paris, we visited used bookstores,” Stuewer said.

Stuewer and his wife returned to the midwest where he took a job as an instructor in physics at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, where their son Marcus and daughter Suzanne were born. In 1962, he entered the doctoral program at Madison and began working under Ed Miller in his optics lab. Wisconsin had one of the few History of Science programs in the country at that time and Stuewer took some classes in the history of physics. He became interested in nuclear physics and got a research job at Wisconsin’s tandem accelerator under Heinz Barschall. He completed a double Ph.D in nuclear physics and history of science in 1968. His dissertation, supervised by Erwin Hiebert, was on Arthur Compton and the discovery of the Compton Effect.

In 1967, Hiebert had arranged for Stuewer to meet Herbert Feigl, the founder of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science and a member of the Vienna Circle (a philosophy movement in the 1920s). “I learned the only philosophy of science I’ve ever known from him,” Stuewer said. Feigl contacted Professor Morton Hammermesh, who was head of the physics department at that time, and asked if he had a place for Stuewer. He began as an Assistant Professor in the summer of 1967 with a joint appointment in physics and at the Center for Philosophy of Science. Stuewer said Hammermesh agreed to the double appointment, but insisted that he have an office in the physics department.

This model, once established, eventually became the Program in History of Science and Technology with faculty members taking dual appointments in their area of study as well as the program. This is a unique arrangement and most history of science programs do not have faculty embedded in other departments. Stuewer’s research and teaching duties were entirely in the history of physics. He continued to work on Compton, who had been an instructor for one year at the University of Minnesota. Stuewer felt that his time at Minnesota had played a critical role in his development as a physicist. This work resulted in his first book: The Compton Effect: Turning Point in Physics (1975). Stuewer also supervised Fred Fellows’ dissertation (completed in 1985) on another prominent physicist with ties to Minnesota: John H. Van Vleck. Roger and Helga became good friends with Van (as he was known) and his wife Abigail. When Van Vleck won the Nobel Prize in 1977, Stuewer sent him a telegram which just said “Ski-U-Mah”. Van Vleck wrote back saying that of all the congratulatory messages he’d received, this one was “the briefest and most to the point.” It was largely the friendship between the Stuewers and the Van Vlecks that prompted Abigail, after her husband’s death in 1980, to make a generous donation to the school. This led to the establishment of the annual Van Vleck lecture series, now in its 43rd year, which has brought many leading physicists, including several Nobel laureates, to Minnesota over the years. This year’s edition, featuring Professor William Unruh, doubled as an event to celebrate Professor Stuewer’s many contributions over the years to the school, the university and the profession, honored more permanently, thanks to his and his wife’s generous gift, through the establishment of the Roger and Helga Stuewer Library. Two books by Van Vleck with personal dedications to Professor Stuewer will be part of this library.

In 1977, Stuewer organized a symposium on nuclear physics in the 1930s in Minnesota, with many of the luminaries in the field attending (such as Bethe, Frisch, Peierls and Wheeler in addition to Minnesota’s own Al Nier). Stuewer edited the proceedings of that meeting: 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 Professor Stuewer 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).

Members of the Minnesota physics community will now be able to check out Professor Stuewer’s own books as well as books by other historians of physics and, most importantly, many physicists themselves from the Roger and Helga Stuewer Library. Professor Michel Janssen, Stuewer’s successor in the school, is especially excited about this prospect. Visiting with the collection, he says, “I feel like a kid in a candy store.” He is confident that this unique collection will greatly enhance the experience of the students taking the history of physics classes he took over from Professor Stuewer. Like many students, he fondly remembers Professor Stuewer literally carting in such treasures as the collected papers of Thomas Young when lecturing about the history of 19th-century physics. Professor Janssen may reinstate this tradition in his own lectures on the history of quantum mechanics, showing the students other gems from the Roger and Helga Stuewer Library such as the first four editions of Arnold Sommerfeld’s Atombau und Spektrallinien (Atomic Structure and Spectral Lines), known as the “bible” of the old quantum theory, or a first edition of the famous textbook by Paul Dirac. Other physics students and faculty members will be able to explore the Roger and Helga Stuewer Library on their own with a finding aid that is currently being prepared based on Professor Stuewer’s own meticulous documentation of the collection.