In memoriam: Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson

Richard “Dick” Wilson, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics Emeritus at Harvard University, died on May 19, 2018, in Needham, Massachusetts.

Dick will be remembered for his scientific work, student mentorship, principled humanitarian and environmental stands, and interdisciplinary connections across the globe. Dick was also a railway enthusiast, Morris dancer, concertina player, world traveler and hiker.

Born April 29, 1926, in Putney, England, the son of Percy and Dorothy Kingston Wilson, Dick grew up in the Putney and Merton Park districts of London. He studied at London’s Colet Court and St. Paul’s Schools, evacuating to Crowthorne by bicycle during World War II. Dick earned his B.A. and D.Phil at Christ Church, Oxford. He was a Guggenheim Fellow for postdoctoral work in the United States at University of Rochester and then Stanford University, with Wolfgang “Pief” Panofsky. While at Stanford, Dick met Andrée Désirée DuMond, marrying her after a brief courtship. In 1952, they moved to Oxford University for Dick’s research lecturer position, and in 1955 to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for Dick’s faculty position at Harvard.

His early years at Harvard were highlighted by leadership in upgrading the existing Harvard proton cyclotron to 160 MeV for studying nucleon-nucleon interactions. This facility later became a pioneer in the medical use of protons for the treatment of tumors. This partnership with the medical community eventually led to the construction of a dedicated treatment facility at Massachusetts General Hospital and other collaborations on medical physics. He collaborated with colleagues from Harvard and MIT to design and construct the Cambridge Electron Accelerator, which was used in the 1960s to further probe the structure of nucleons.

As a member of the board of the Universities Research Association in the late 1960s, Dick was directly involved in the formation and construction of the new National Accelerator Laboratory (later named Fermilab). Rather than join the staff of Fermilab, he chose to stay close to students and, as part of the large university research community, made frequent “commutes” to Fermilab for one to two days from his office in Cambridge. Over the next two-and-a-half decades, his research at Fermilab delved deeper into nucleon structure, using high-energy muons first on the E-98 experiment and later on E-665.

Never sitting still, in the late 1970s, Dick joined a new collaboration of researchers known as CLEO to study electron-positron interactions at the new Cornell Electron Storage Ring at Cornell University, leading to over two decades of research. His final work in particle physics returned to electron-nucleon scattering with a new intense polarized beam at the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) in Virginia. The final results from the work at CEBAF were published in 2012.

Dick went often to the USSR and Russia, believing that direct cultural and scientific contact was essential to prevent war. After the exile of dissident Soviet physicists, Dick boycotted USSR conferences and was an early and visible supporter of Andrei Sakharov. Dick studied nuclear power safety and environmental carcinogens, such as asbestos. He visited Chernobyl after the nuclear accident, taking a PBS film crew with him. He studied arsenic in drinking water and was especially proud of starting a program to provide safe arsenic-free water from village wells in Bangladesh. Dick authored 935 scholarly papers and eight books.

Dick remained devoted to Andrée. They lived in Newton, Massachusetts, for over 50 years, where Andrée created an extraordinary garden retreat. They loved hiking and climbing mountains, often with their children. Dick loved to sing, recalling countless traditional British folk and music hall songs, and often accompanying himself on the concertina. His Harvard Physics Laboratory photo showed him dancing the Fool’s Jig with the Headington Quarry Morris Men in Oxford.

Dick is survived by his brother Geoffrey, his sisters-in-law Alison Wilson and Adèle Panofsky, and by his six children, A. Christopher (Rita McMahon), Michael (Lisa Greenleaf), Nicholas (Carol Anne Freeman), Elaine (Brad Farnsworth), André A. (Mary Frances Bond), Peter (Julie Whitmore); and three grandchildren, Benjamin Farnsworth, Irene Farnsworth (Matt Solimano) and Tyrone Whitmore-Wilson. He was predeceased by his wife Andrée Désirée and his brothers Arthur Hey and Laurence. He is fondly remembered by devoted caregiver Mrs. Bethune Labeach, extended family, and his many students, colleagues, and friends.

A memorial service will be held at the Harvard Faculty Club at 20 Quincy St., Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Sunday, June 24, at 1 p.m., followed by a reception.

Donations, in lieu of flowers, may be made in Dick’s honor to American Friends Service Committee, Ingersoll Gender Center, or to the Newton Conservators Land Stewardship Fund. Condolences may be posted to the guestbook at Lehman Reen & McNamara Funeral Home is at 1-617-782-1000, Brighton, Massachusetts.

Read Wilson’s obituary.