Famed scientists honored at WSU

Famed scientists honored at WSU

Hannelore Sudermann Staff writer

Honoring two internationally known scientists who got their start in Pullman, Washington State University this week is changing the name of Science Hall to Abelson Hall.

Nuclear physicist Philip Abelson, 89, came to Pullman from his home in Washington, D.C., to represent himself and his wife, Dr. Neva Abelson, who died two years ago.

Both Abelsons were pioneers in their fields. Neva Martin Abelson was one of very few women to earn a medical degree at Johns Hopkins University in 1942 and was the co-creator of a test to determine the Rh factor in blood. The test, which signals whether a person’s blood has a positive or negative protein, has saved thousands of lives.

Philip Abelson, who got his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, was a member and president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., as well as the editor of Science Magazine for more than two decades.

The Abelsons met in the 1930s when they were studying chemistry at WSU as undergraduates. Philip Abelson’s ties to the university reach back almost to the school’s beginning.

In 1905 his parents, both immigrants from Norway, came to Pullman to live, study and work. His mother, Ellen Abelson, bought land near campus where the family built a small house where they lived and rented out rooms to students. Abelson said he believes the lot where the home was is where Science Hall, now Abelson Hall, currently stands. Abelson’s father worked on a crew digging ditches for water pipes for the early construction on campus.

Philip Abelson started out at WSU studying chemical engineering. His background helped him immensely in his science classes.

“When I went into the lab, I had already the night before read the lab manual and I knew exactly what I was going to do,” he said. While his classmates were still trying to find their way into their experiments, Abelson had completed his and was starting into the next day’s assignment.

“Before the class was half over, I had analyzed all the things I was supposed to,” he said. The instructors gave him extra work.

While Philip and Neva didn’t have classes together, they studied in the same buildings.

“I had spotted this young woman coming out of the chemistry building and she always seemed to be happy – in a good humor,” he said. To see a woman studying science was rare, to see one so obviously enjoying it was even rarer.

“She was taking an advanced chemistry course and I found she was getting better grades than I did,” said Abelson. “You might say I married her for her brains.”

Since the late 1970s, the couple has made a number of significant donations to WSU, including the largest graduate fellowship endowment in the College of Sciences. The gift awards about 10 graduate students $3,000 scholarships every year.

When asked what his wife would have thought about the building dedication which took place Wednesday, Abelson shrugged. “You never know what a woman is going to say,” he said. “But, I think like me, she wouldn’t complain.”

Copyright 2002 Cowles Publishing Company

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