April 25, 2011

Thomas Fulton, 83, father of high-energy physics at JHU

Thomas Fulton, considered the father of high-energy physics at The Johns Hopkins University, died on April 8 of heart failure at the age of 83.

Born Tomas Feuerzeug in Budapest, Hungary, in 1937, Fulton immigrated with his family to the United States when he was 14 years old in order to escape the Nazi regime. The family first fled to Spain and then on to Cuba before taking a boat to their final destination: New York City. There, young Fulton enrolled at Stuyvesant High School, from which he graduated in 1946 with honors in physics and English.

He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard, where he studied with Nobel Prize winner Julian Schwinger, known as one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century. An expert in quantum electrodynamics, Schwinger was Fulton’s thesis adviser. Fulton then did two years of postdoctoral work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where he worked under J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project.

It was in Princeton that Fulton had a one-hour private meeting with Albert Einstein, who died only four months later. Fulton had requested the get-together and was pleasantly surprised—and thrilled—when the physics legend agreed. In Fulton’s unpublished memoir, he describes Einstein’s lavish halo of white hair and his office blackboard, which was covered with equations seeking to construct a unified theory of gravitation and electromagnetism.

Fulton joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins as an assistant professor of physics in 1956 and remained here until his retirement in 2000. He brought with him expertise in the areas of high-energy physics—the study of which had not yet emerged at Johns Hopkins—quantum electrodynamics and atomic theory. He was named an associate professor in 1959 and attained full professorship in 1964.

During his time on the Homewood campus, Fulton not only helped found the particle theory physics group that first tackled high-energy physics research, but he also mentored numerous graduate students who are now on the faculty of leading universities. He was a fellow of the American Physical Society and was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright Research Scholarship.

In addition to his love of physics and science, Fulton was passionate about opera, classical music, art, traveling, rock climbing, photography, biking and skiing. Friends and family members describe him as a true Renaissance man.

His wife, Babbette, a retired teacher, died in 2006. He is survived by his two daughters, Judy Fulton and Ruth Kiselewich; two sons-in-law; and four grandchildren.