BATAVIA, IL.- Robert R. Wilson, physicist, sculptor, environmentalist and pioneering particle accelerator builder, came home today to the laboratory he created on the Illinois prairie over 30 years ago.
The ashes of the founding director of the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory were buried in Pioneer Cemetery, a 19th-century burial ground on the Fermilab site, at a service today (April 28) for the Wilson family and the Fermilab community. Before Wilson’s death on January 16, 2000, at the age of 85, the Department of Energy had granted his request to be buried in the cemetery, whose oldest headstone dates from 1839.
Among the graves in the Pioneer Cemetery is that of General Thompson Mead, a veteran of the War of 1812, who established a homestead in Batavia. Following what was then common practice, the Mead family used a previously existing cemetery in their pasture as the family’s burial ground. It became part of the Fermilab site when the federal government acquired the land for the National Accelerator Laboratory in 1967.
A memorial service, led by Wilson’s son, Rand, followed the graveside service, in Fermilab’s Robert R. Wilson Hall.
Wilson was the laboratory’s first employee, said Fermilab Deputy Director Kenneth Stanfield, in remarks at the memorial service. He quoted Wilson’s later recollection that “I was the lone employee, wondering who, if anyone, would come to help me turn that cornfield into a physics laboratory.”
More than most institutions, Stanfield said, “Fermilab remains the creation of just one man. We have come here today to honor and celebrate the life of the man who, more than any other, gave our laboratory its unique and extraordinary character.”
In earlier remarks, Fermilab Director Mike Witherell also emphasized Wilson’s s enduring influence on the particle physics laboratory, the home of the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator.
“Robert Wilson gave our laboratory the distinctive character it possesses today,” Witherell said. “We inherit from him the tradition of building large and powerful accelerators that open up new ways of exploring the fundamental nature of the universe. In addition, he planned and designed Fermilab’s striking physical campus, from the restored prairie to the remarkable architecture, including several of his own sculptures. He had a vision of the laboratory as a cultural, recreational and educational center for the surrounding community, as well as a global research center open to the international community of scientists. He had a profound and unshakable commitment to human rights. Bob Wilson’s legacy survives at Fermilab, in the surrounding communities and in the world of science.”
Also present at the memorial were Wilson’s sons Daniel and Jonathan Wilson, and Wilson’s four grandchildren.
Other speakers at the memorial service included Robert Mau, chief of accelerator operations at the laboratory, who described Wilson’s legendary ability to inspire and lead others. “With all due respect to our current managers,” Mau told the Wilson sons, “we still think of your father as the boss.”
Fermilab, a Department of Energy national laboratory, is operated by the United States Department of Energy.