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Nuclear physicist A. Carl Helmholz, former physics chair, has died

– August Carl Helmholz, a nuclear physicist and professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, died Oct. 29 at his home in Lafayette, Calif., after a six-month decline in health. He was 88.

Helmholz started his career in nuclear physics in 1937 under the late Ernest O. Lawrence, the UC Berkeley Nobel Laureate who invented the cyclotron, at the time referred to as an "atom smasher." Helmholz worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II and continued his nuclear studies with various successors of the cyclotron at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) until his retirement in 1980.

A chair of the UC Berkeley physics department from 1955 to 1962, he was an active member of the campus community as well as the department and served on many campus committees.

"He was excellent as chairman, and a very humane human being - that was one of his assets," said Leroy Kerth, professor emeritus of physics and senior scientist emeritus at LBNL.

The late Henry J. Vaux, a close friend and former dean of the College of Natural Resources, praised Helmholz for his "ability to find the common ground on which conflicting views on important issues within the faculty could be constructively accommodated."

In part to address the conflict of the Vietnam era and social turmoil on campus, Helmholz helped establish with Vaux the Distinguished Visitor Program, which brought notable people from business, government, conservation and academics to speak with students at UC Berkeley. The lecture program continues today in the College of Natural Resources.

After his retirement, he continued to offer time and counsel to the department and the university. At the time of his death, he had completed a draft history of the UC Berkeley physics department from 1955 on, complementing a departmental history written by his predecessor as chair, Raymond T. Birge.

Helmholz and his wife, Betty, were generous donors to the campus, in particular to the Department of Physics, but also to the UC Botanical Garden, the University Library and International House.

Born May 24, 1915, in Evanston, Ill., Helmholz was the son of one of the pioneers of the practice of pediatrics, Henry Fredrick Helmholz. Shortly after his birth, his father and mother, Isabel Lindsay Helmholz, moved the family to Rochester, Minn., where his father started the pediatric department at the Mayo Clinic.

Helmholz attended Shattuck School, a military academy in Faribault, Minn., and entered Harvard University in 1932 with the intention of becoming a doctor. There, he excelled academically and athletically, winning numerous tournaments as a member of the Harvard tennis team.

Between his sophomore and junior years, however, he fell ill with what turned out to be diabetes, and was forced to return to Rochester to work on controlling his illness. He spent much of his junior year at the University of Minnesota, but, after starting insulin, was able to return to Harvard, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1936 with an A. B. magna cum laude.

Embarking on a career in physics, he garnered a year-long Henry Fellowship that allowed him to study at Cambridge University in England, where he learned of the nuclear physics work of Lawrence, who was developing bigger and better cyclotrons at UC Berkeley. The university also came highly recommended by Luis Alvarez, a former neighbor from Rochester who subsequently won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the hydrogen bubble chamber. Helmholz applied and was accepted at UC Berkeley as a physics graduate student.

An equally important factor in his decision to study at UC Berkeley was the desire to be near Elizabeth Jane Little, who attended Stanford University. They were married in the summer of 1938.

After his arrival at UC Berkeley in 1937, Helmholz began work at the 37-inch cyclotron, then located on the main campus in the Radiation Laboratory, which was producing radioactive material such as phosphorus for medical studies.

Though Lawrence was his initial thesis advisor, Helmholz completed his thesis in 1940 with Edwin McMillan, another future Nobel Laureate in physics.

As the Radiation Lab became increasingly involved in war-related work, Helmholz joined the Manhattan Project in 1942, using the magnets of the 37-inch cyclotron and the larger 184-inch cyclotron to separate uranium that eventually was used in experiments at Los Alamos that led to the building of an atomic bomb. Upon receiving his Ph.D., Helmholz started teaching in the UC Berkeley physics department, was appointed an assistant professor in 1943 and a full professor in 1951.

He continued his nuclear studies at LBNL after the war, assisting in building the lab's first synchrotron, a variation on the cyclotron based on a novel phenomenon discovered by McMillan. The 300 MeV (million electron volt) synchrotron produced higher energy particles, allowing exploration of a broad variety of new particles and particle interactions. His studies involved artificial radioactivity, the measurement of gamma-ray energies, the physics of high-energy neutrons and the effects of high-energy X-rays.

With his long-time colleague, the late physicist Burton Moyer, he also conducted research on pi mesons, or pions, using LBNL's Bevatron.

Following his seven-year stint as chairman of the physics department, for which he was handpicked by Birge, the outgoing chair, Helmholz served on various campus committees until his retirement in 1980. He was particularly proud of his role in improving the UC retirement system.

He and Moyer also revised the popular "Mechanics" textbook of the Berkeley Physics Series for a second edition.

Among the awards he received were an honorary D.Sc. from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1979, and the Berkeley Citation in 1980. He was named a Berkeley Fellow in 1988 and was a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences and of the American Physical Society. He was a former member of the governing board of the American Institute of Physics and a member of Sigma Xi.

He also served on the boards of Boise Cascade, Conwed Corp., Laird Norton Co. and Laird Norton Trust Co.

Helmholz led an active life outside the university. He continued to play tennis, mostly at the Berkeley Tennis Club, and frequently visited a cabin he built at Echo Lake and a ski cabin at Alpine Meadows. He also purchased a 13-acre vineyard in the Alexander Valley, part of the Sonoma County wine region, and took a brief interest in wine making.

Helmholz is survived by his wife, Betty, of Lafayette; four children, Charlotte "Chalan" Colby of Los Altos Hills, Calif., George Helmholz of Covelo, Calif., Fred Helmholz of Seattle, Wash., and Edith Roth of Orinda, Calif.; two grandchildren, Lindsay King and Michael Roth; a brother, Dr. Fred Helmholz, a pulmonary specialist in Rochester, Minn.; and a sister, Margaret Burchell of St. Paul, Minn. His older brother, Lindsay Helmholz of St. Louis, Mo., preceded him in death, as did two grandchildren, Elise and Merrick Chaffee.

A memorial service is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 23, at 2 p.m. in the Great Hall of the UC Berkeley Faculty Club. Donations may be made to the A. Carl Helmholz Scholarship/Fellowship (#41680), Department of Physics, 366 LeConte Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-7300.