Walter Meyerhof, professor emeritus of physics, dies at 84

Walter E. Meyerhof

Walter E. Meyerhof

Walter E. Meyerhof, a professor emeritus of physics who fled Nazi Germany with help from "the American Schindler," died May 27 in a Los Altos nursing home of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 84.

"He established nuclear physics research at Stanford in the early 1960s and then became interested in atomic physics research later in his career," said physics Professor Blas Cabrera, who came to Stanford as a graduate student in 1968 with Meyerhof as his adviser. "As I heard about his younger years, it brought into perspective his enormous compassion and support for any students having difficulties. I remember that he was always the department ombudsman and always a strong supporter of affirmative action and encouraging women to study physics."

Meyerhof was born in Kiel, Germany, on April 22, 1922. That year his father, Otto Meyerhof, won a Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the relationship between oxygen consumption and the metabolism of lactic acid in muscle. His mother, Hedwig Schallenberg, was a painter.

Both of his parents were Jewish, but they raised their three children Lutheran to try to protect them from anti-Semitism. In his autobiography, In the Shadow of Love: Stories from My Life (Fithian Press, 2002), Meyerhof said "blending" didn't work. In 1933, a member of a Hitler Youth group asked why Meyerhof was at "their" school and informed him that "they" would beat him up if he persisted in attending gym class. In music class, when he sang his part of a canon at the wrong time, the teacher, a member of the Nazi Party, slapped Meyerhof so hard his nose bled.

Harder times ensued. Meyerhof lived in England from 1936 to 1938 and France from 1939 to 1941. Enter Varian Fry, a Harvard-educated, non-Jewish journalist who went to Vichy France to run a rescue network armed with a list of 200 intellectuals and others hunted by the Gestapo. He ended up saving at least 2,000 people, including Meyerhof and his family.

Awaiting a visa, Meyerhof stayed in Fry's villa with surrealist writers and artists and other intellectuals, including André Breton and Max Ernst. In his autobiography Meyerhof wrote: "At dinner they laughed and flirted with their girlfriends and they organized races of praying mantis insects on the tablecloth, which they had stored in small bottles. I was 18 years old and felt very uncomfortable among the grownups and their antics, so as soon as the meal was over, I went to my room and shut the door."

After settling in the United States, Meyerhof was a graduate student and research assistant from 1941 to 1946 at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was engaged in war research developing radar crystal rectifiers. In 1946, he obtained his doctorate from Penn at age 24 and married Miriam Ruben, who had spent the war working in a child-care center directed by Anna Freud.

While working as an assistant professor of physics at the University of Illinois from 1946 to 1949, Meyerhof got a call from Stanford Professors Felix Bloch (who would win a Nobel Prize in physics in 1952) and Leonard Schiff (who would propose the Gravity Probe B project in 1959) to recruit him to the Farm. In 1949, Meyerhof came to Stanford, where he became a full professor in 1959 and wrote two textbooks, Elements of Nuclear Physics and, with Jörg Eichler, Relativistic Atomic Collisions.

"I remember him best when, in the late 1950s, friction arose between senior members of the Physics Department and myself and others planning for the new SLAC [Stanford Linear Accelerator Center] or Project M laboratory," recalled SLAC founding director W.K.H. "Pief" Panofsky. (The "M" stood for "monster" to indicate the size of the endeavor.) A friend of Meyerhof's, Panofsky and his family also fled Germany after Panofsky's father was fired from his professorship at the University of Hamburg in 1934. "Meyerhof was unfailing in the search for common ground to make the new 'monster' project possible without impacting the traditions of the Physics Department," Panofsky said.

In the early 1970s, when students wanted an astronomical observatory, Meyerhof suggested they build one. They did, with Meyerhof as their faculty adviser. Meyerhof won a Dinkelspiel Award for outstanding service to undergraduate education.

He chaired the Physics Department from 1970 to 1977. "Walter was a real gentleman and scholar," wrote Nobel laureate Steve Chu, a former chair of Stanford's Physics Department, in an e-mail interview. "In all my interactions with him, [he] always acted in the best interests of the entire Physics Department."

In the late 1980s, Meyerhof criticized scientists at the University of Utah and Britain's University of Southampton who claimed to have achieved "cold fusion"—which if true could have solved the world's energy problems. When a respected engineering professor at Stanford, Robert Huggins, claimed to have confirmed one part of the cold fusion experiment, Meyerhof and others tried to reproduce it and failed. "Tens of millions of dollars are at stake, dear sister and brother, because one scientist put a thermometer in one place instead of the other," Meyerhof told an Associated Press reporter.

After retiring in 1992, Meyerhof established and directed a foundation to honor the memory of the man who saved his life. He created a film about Fry called Assignment: Rescue, narrated by Meryl Streep and distributed to more than 35,000 schools to demonstrate "the power of one."

"Walter was an amazingly compassionate person," said Esther Wojcicki, director of education for the Varian Fry Foundation and wife of current Physics Department Chair Stan Wojcicki. "Everyone he met felt his warmth. It was an honor to work with him on this project."

Fry died in 1967. Almost three decades later, the Israeli government posthumously gave him its "Righteous Among the Nations" award—an honor he shares with Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg.

Meyerhof was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society.

In the 1960s, he served as president of the Ravenswood PTA and suggested an idea—sensitizing teachers to the concerns of African American students—that was made into a training film for teachers called All My Students.

His hobbies included traveling, skiing, sailing, rock collecting, woodworking, playing pingpong, painting and drawing.

Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Miriam Meyerhof of Menlo Park; sister Bettina Emerson of Seattle; sons Michael Meyerhof of Menlo Park and David Meyerhof of Burbank; and grandson Matthew Meyerhof of Santa Barbara.

Plans are pending for a memorial service.