Willis E. Lamb Jr., the first Nobel Prize-winning scientist to work at the University of Arizona, died Thursday at University Medical Center. He was 94.
Mr. Lamb joined the university in 1974, 19 years after winning the Nobel Prize in physics for his research that led to the Lamb Shift, an understanding of the difference in energy levels in the hydrogen atom.
According to UA, his work became one of the foundations of quantum electrodynamics, a key aspect of modern elementary particle physics.
“He really changed the way people thought about the quantum theory of matter,” said James Wyant, UA dean of optical sciences. “He was the big man in that area.”
Mr. Lamb retired from the university in 2002. He died of complications from a gallstone disorder.
Mr. Lamb studied physics at the University of California-Berkeley in the 1930s, during a time when the college was booming with scientific discovery. His doctoral thesis was directed by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to lead the top-secret Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.
Prior to his teaching position in Tucson, Lamb taught at Columbia University, Stanford University, Oxford University and Yale University.
Murray Sargent, one of Mr. Lamb’s students at Yale, was instrumental in bringing him to UA. Sargent, who now works for Microsoft in Seattle, started working at UA as a physics professor in 1968. He and others who had been Mr. Lamb’s students and worked at UA started a campaign to convince Mr. Lamb to move to Tucson.
“We got him out to Tucson. I found him his house,” Sargent said Friday. “Of course, he had to think it over.”
According to Citizen archives, his employment at UA caused some controversy because many were opposed to the university paying him a salary of $37,800, which was almost twice what other professors were making. In addition, the university paid for him to bring almost $1 million worth of equipment with him, employed his wife, Ursula, as a history teacher and hired four of his research assistants.
“This university is not going to apologize for Willis Lamb,” said then-UA president John Schaefer in 1975 in response to accusations that he was spending too much money to bring in “superstar” faculty. “We’re being asked, essentially, to apologize for trying to bring the best in quality education to the people of the state of Arizona.”
Mr. Lamb was almost forced to retire in 1978 when the Arizona Board of Regents directed the university to trim its faculty list by forcing employees older than 65 to retire. The regents waived that directive for Mr. Lamb and his wife, allowing them to continue working at the university.
In 1989, three professors, from Harvard, the University of Washington and Bonn University were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their work on an atomic clock, which was based on the principles of the Lamb Shift.
While his research greatly aided the understanding of physics, he acknowledged in a 1974 Citizen article that quantum physics “don’t have much effect on the average household.”
Sargent said Mr. Lamb was a perfectionist who was interested in computers and adapted well to the technology changes that occurred between 1974 and 2002.
In 2000 Mr. Lamb was given the National Medal of Science, considered the nation’s highest scientific award, by President Bill Clinton.
“Lamb has always just been a physicists’ physicist. He has always put physics and the quest for understanding nature at its most fundamental level foremost” his former colleague William Wing said in 2000 after Mr. Lamb was honored.
Other awards for his work include:
• Nobel Foundation, Lennart Bernadotte Award, 2004
• World Federation of Scientists, Gian Carlo Wick Gold Medal, 2002
• Society for Optical and Quantum Electronics, Einstein Medal, 1992
• Physical Society of London, Guthrie Award
Mr. Lamb was 89 when he retired from UA. Even after his retirement, Wyant said, Mr. Lamb came to work at UA every day until two years ago.
Most recently Mr. Lamb, along with Sargent and others, established the Willis Lamb Jr. Scholarship in Optical Sciences. A few weeks before his death, the scholarship was awarded for the first time to Amber Young, an optical sciences graduate student.
Mr. Lamb is survived by his wife of five months, Elsie Vezey Lamb, and his brother Perry Lamb.
“He was a great teacher and a great inventor and a true inspiration to be around,” Sargent said. “He’s going to be missed.”