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Melba Phillips papers, 1922-1999

Description of Collection


American Institute of Physics. Niels Bohr Library & Archives.

Papers created by

Phillips, Melba, 1907-2004

Size of collection

1 linear foot
2 manuscript boxes

Short description of collection

This collection consists mostly of correspondence from Phillips’ professional and family life, but also includes one file on magnetic rotation, and a scrapbook from her travels in China.

Language(s) of collection


Collection number:


Biographical Note

Melba Phillips was born February 1, 1907, in Hazleton, Indiana. She graduated from high school at the age of 15, and by 1926 had already earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Oakland City College of Indiana. She received her master’s degree in physics in 1928 from Battle Creek College of Michigan, and she became one of the first doctoral students of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the effort to build the first atomic bomb. She received her doctoral degree in physics under Oppenheimer’s supervision in 1933 at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1935, Phillips and Oppenheimer offered an explanation for what was at the time unexpected behavior of accelerated deuterons (nuclei of deuterium, or “heavy hydrogen” atoms) in reactions with other nuclei. This explanation became known as the Oppenheimer-Phillips effect. “It’s considered one of the classics of early nuclear physics,” said Stuart Rice, Professor in Chemistry, University of Chicago.

After leaving Berkeley in 1935, Phillips held a series of temporary positions at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and the Connecticut College for Women. In 1938, Phillips obtained a long-term faculty position at Brooklyn College. She also began working part-time in 1944 at the Columbia University Radiation Laboratory. She lost both jobs in 1952 for refusing to testify before the U.S. Senate’s Internal Security subcommittee formed to investigate alleged communist activities. After losing her jobs, Phillips remained unemployed for several years. During that time she wrote two textbooks, Principles of Physical Science, with Bonner, and Classical Electricity and Magnetism, with W.K.H. Panofsky, which became widely used for undergraduate and graduate physics training.

In 1957, Edward Condon at Washington University appointed Phillips associate director of the university’s Academic Year Institute, a teacher-training institute. Phillips left Washington University to join the University of Chicago faculty in 1962, and retired as a Professor Emerita in 1972. Under her influence the University began teaching physical science courses for non-science majors, a tradition that continues today. She continued to work after leaving Chicago, serving as a visiting professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, until 1975, and as a visiting professor at the Graduate School of the University of Science and Technology, Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing, in 1980.

Honors include: the American Physical Society Joseph Burton Forum Award, 2003; the Guy and Rebecca Forman Award for Outstanding Teaching in Undergraduate Physics from Vanderbilt University, 1988; the Karl Taylor Compton Award of the American Institute of Physics for distinguished statesmanship in science, 1981; the Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers, for notable contributions to the teaching of physics, 1974; an honorary degree from Oakland City College, 1964; and a Distinguished Service Citation, American Association of Physics Teachers, 1963. She also was a fellow of the American Physical Society and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Scope and Contents of Collection

The papers of Melba Phillips are comprised mostly of correspondence, both professional and personal. The professional correspondence includes letters from fellow physicists and associates discussing upcoming events and research, offering congratulations for awards and honors, and support after her loss of employment.

Her personal correspondence contains outgoing letters written by Phillips, addressed to her family members. These letters were saved and donated by her family, and contain candid observations about her own work and her daily life.

The collection also includes Phillips’ report cards from the Oakland City College of Indiana; a file containing speeches, papers and correspondence relating to her research on magnetic rotation; and a scrapbook of photos, correspondence and clippings from her travels in China.

Restrictions on Use and Access

Researchers must have an approved access application on file in order to access archival materials.

Selected Search Terms

These papers have been indexed in the International Catalog of Sources for History of Physics and Allied Sciences (ICOS) using the following terms. Those seeking related materials should search under these terms.


Phillips, Melba, 1907-


American Association of Physics Teachers.
Brooklyn College
Oakland City College (Oakland City, Ind.)
State University of New York at Stony Brook.
University of Chicago.
Zhongguo ke xue yuan

Subject terms

Communism and science.
Karl Taylor Compton Award
Oersted Medal.
Women in science.
Women physicists.

Genre terms


Organization and Arrangement of Collection

Organized into the following series: Series I. Correspondence; Series II. Miscellaneous. This collection is arranged chronologically within each series.

Provenance and Acquisition Information

The bulk of this collection was donated to the Niels Bohr Library and Archives by Ellen Vinson, relative of Melba Phillips, in February 2007. One folder of correspondence was provided by Leon Heller in December 2006.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Melanie J. Brown in 2007.

Preferred Citation of Collection

Box [number], Folder [number], Melba Phillips papers, 1922-1999. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, College Park, MD 20740, USA.

Administrative Information


Finding Aid to the Melba Phillips papers, 1922-1999


American Institute of Physics Niels Bohr Library & Archives

One Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740


Encoding Information

Machine-readable finding aid encoded by Melanie J Brown in 2007. Any revisions made to this finding aid occurred as part of the editing and encoding process.

Series I: Correspondence

Subseries A: Professional correspondence

Box 1 Folder 1 Correspondence – special letters, 1932-1990
Folder 2 Correspondence, 1948-1999
Folder 3 Correspondence, 1951-1987
Folder 4 Correspondence, 1956-1995
Folder 5 Correspondence on Electricity and Magnetism, 1963-1987
Folder 6 Correspondence, 1970-1995
Folder 7 Correspondence – awards, 1974-1981
Folder 8 Correspondence – Leon Heller, 1987-1999

Subseries B: Family correspondence

Box 1 Folder 9 Correspondence – family, 1951-1997; undated
Folder 10 Correspondence – family, 1971-1981; undated
Box 2 Folder 1 Correspondence – family, 1972-1992; undated
Folder 2 Correspondence – family, 1974-1981; undated
Folder 3 Correspondence – family, 1975-1996; undated
Folder 4 Correspondence – family, 1976-1997; undated
Folder 5 Correspondence – family, 1983-1996

Series II: Miscellaneous

Box 2 Folder 6 Report cards, 1922-1926
Folder 7 Magnetic rotation file – speeches, papers, correspondence, 1960-1968; undated
Folder 8 Scrapbook – “China and the Tangs”, 1980