Eugen Merzbacher

April 09, 1921 —  June 06, 2013

Noted author, teacher, and former APS President, Kenan Professor Eugen Merzbacher, died at age 92 on June 6, 2013, in Chapel Hill, NC, following a fall and brief hospitalization. Known widely for his Quantum Mechanics text, and for his early theoretical research in atomic collision physics, Eugen also served the APS in numerous important roles for over 40 years.

Born into a family of scholars and scientists, Eugen left Berlin in 1935 with his family for Turkey. There he earned his undergraduate degree in physics at Istanbul University, and then taught high school chemistry and physics. In 1947 he immigrated to the US to enroll at Harvard. He finished there in three years, writing his doctoral thesis on beta-decay theory under the direction of Julian Schwinger.

After a brief stay at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Eugen moved in 1951 to Duke University to provide theoretical support for its new nuclear physics program. One year later, he joined the physics faculty at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, an affiliation he retained for the rest of his career. Eugen also held numerous visiting positions, among them at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen (1959-60), and as a Humboldt Senior Scientist at the University of Frankfurt (1977).

Eugen at UNC, Henry Newson at Duke, and Worth Seagondollar at NC State University were the ‘institutional fathers’ who in 1965 began the cooperative Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory program that still thrives today. At UNC, Eugen led his colleagues campus-wide in a badly needed revision of the undergraduate curriculum, and served as Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. In 1993, UNC presented him an honorary Doctor of Science degree, a distinction rarely bestowed on former faculty.

The APS also benefited from Eugen’s service. While a senior officer, including being its President (1990), he spearheaded the APS’s strategic planning and led in rewriting its constitution to accommodate the rapidly broadening physics interests of its members. He helped reorganize and reorient APS governance--giving management power to the smaller, more nimble and frequently meeting Executive Board and making the larger APS Council an oversight body. He was also instrumental in negotiating and planning the move of the APS and AIP executive offices from New York City to the American Center for Physics in College Park, MD. In the mid-1990s, Eugen headed a task force that ratcheted up APS journal acceptance standards to control the costs of rapidly growing manuscript submissions without adding to library subscription costs. Afterwards he continued to spearhead the Society’s efforts to make its scientific publications available electronically. Until his death, he was a frequent and respected manuscript referee.

Noted for his development of the plane-wave Born approximation for creating inner shell vacancies in ion-atom collisions, Eugen was among the first to recognize that the dynamics of these interactions, including the electromagnetic radiation generated, could be understood as isolated atomic energy levels evolving into quasi-molecular levels, and back again. Two of Eugen’s articles on quantum mechanics formalism were deemed by readers to be among the 50 most important published by the American Journal of Physics in its first 50 years. The AAPT presented him with its prestigious Oersted Medal (1992) in recognition for his contributions to national physics education; the APS’s Southeastern Section presented him with its Slack Award (2010) for exemplary service to its regional physics community.

Perhaps Eugen’s most distinguishing attribute was his vigorous, thoughtful involvement with the wider community. For years he and his wife Ann hosted many students at their home and prepared pancakes after overnight departmental campouts. Eugen’s colleagues on the APS’s executive committee, and their spouses, remember fondly the canoe trip on the French Broad River after a grueling weeklong working retreat that Eugen arranged in Flat Rock, NC. APS staff recall his showing up at their Manhattan office, having flown from Chapel Hill that morning, with a big box of fresh strawberries he had picked for them. After moving to a local retirement community, Eugen followed his life-long love of classical music by recruiting musicians and writing the programs for its weekly concerts. During his last year, Eugen devoted much time to finishing a translation of his chemist father’s memoir about their Jewish family’s life in Germany. Until his death, Eugen and Ann regularly cooked lunches at Chapel Hill’s homeless shelter and picked up day-old bread from a grocery store and took it to be distributed to those in need.

Few ever match Eugen’s attributes: impeccable intellect, superb leadership, devotion to duty, and ideal personality. Many friends and associates benefited intellectually, physically and emotionally from his wise, warm influence.

More information:

Work summary:

1943 Licentate degree in physics and mathematics, Istanbul

1943-47 High school teacher in Ankara, Turkey

1947-50 Graduate student at Harvard University

1950 Ph.D. in Physics, Harvard

1950-51 Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ Visiting Assistant Professor, Duke University

1952-1969 Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor of Physics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

1967-68 Visiting Professor, University of Washington at Seattle

1969 Kenan Professor of Physics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

1977-1982 Chair, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Since 1991, Kenan Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Fall 1993 Arnold Bernhard Visiting Professor, Williams College

1998-99 Senior Advisor and Consultant for the American Physical Society's Centennial            

More information
Submitted by: Thomas B. Clegg1
1 University of North Carolina


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