John Schiffer, nuclear physicist, 1930-2022 

June 21, 2022

John Schiffer sits at his desk in 1987 with an open notebook
University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-12934, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

John Schiffer, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Chicago and former director of the Physics Division at Argonne, died on June 6. 

Over a career spanning nearly 70 years, Schiffer contributed to research on nuclear structure, crystalline beams, and neutrinoless double beta decay, and he played a key role in the development of a spectrometer concept that is now part of several radioactive ion beam facilities. He also played major roles in the development of U.S. and international nuclear physics through his service on advisory committees. 

Schiffer was born in 1930 in Budapest, Hungary, to physician parents and emigrated to the U.S. in 1947. He earned a bachelor's degree in physics at Oberlin College in 1951, a master's degree from Yale in 1952, and a PhD in 1954 under the supervision of Ernest Pollard, a former student of James Chadwick, who won the Nobel Prize in 1935 for his discovery of the neutron.  

Schiffer completed his postdoctoral research at the Rice Institute before joining the physics division at Argonne in 1956, where he remained for 66 years, serving as Division Director or Associate Division Director for 36 of those years. In 1969, Schiffer became a professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago, a joint appointment he held until he became emeritus in 2000. He also held various visiting appointments throughout his career, at Harwell, Princeton, Rochester, and Munich. 

Throughout his career, he earned many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Humboldt Award, the Bonner Prize awarded by the American Physical Society, Yale’s Wilbur Cross Medal, and the Distinguished Service Award from the American Physical Society in 2011. He was also recognized as an Argonne Distinguished Fellow. 

He was a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.    

Schiffer had a profound impact on nuclear physics and other disciplines, publishing first-author papers in eight consecutive decades—from the late 1950s to April 2022. In 2012 he wrote, “We, practicing scientists in the last 100-200 years, are privileged to be participating in unique advances in human knowledge and understanding.” 

  He is survived by his wife Marianne, a biophysicist; his children Celia and Peter; and three grandchildren. 

For more, please read the family’s obituary published in the Chicago Tribune. 

This article was adapted from an Argonne National Lab announcement. 

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