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Stanford physicist and engineer Theodore 'Ted' H. Geballe has died

Theodore "Ted" H. Geballe, a pioneer in the fields of applied physics, materials research and superconductivity, has died.

Theodore “Ted” H. Geballe, the Theodore and Sydney Rosenberg Professor in Applied Physics, Emeritus, in the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S) and professor emeritus of materials science and engineering in the School of Engineering, died on Oct. 24. He was 101.

Theodore “Ted” H. Geballe, 1920-2021 (Image credit: Courtesy Theodore H. Geballe Laboratory for Advanced Materials)

A condensed matter physicist, Geballe studied superconductivity, a phenomenon whereby electrons flow without resistance, and how temperature affects the properties of semiconductors such as silicon and germanium.

His work helped define the field of applied physics, which had ripple effects across many disciplines. His studies paved the way for innovations including infrared-sensitive films in night-vision goggles, thin films in medical imaging equipment, high-purity lithium niobate crystals for lasers and the first successful high-temperature superconductors in thin-film form.

“Ted Geballe is known for a lifetime of momentous contributions to the fields of materials science and, in particular, superconductivity,” said Steve Harris, the Kenneth and Barbara Oshman Professor, Emeritus, in the School of Engineering and professor emeritus of applied physics. “He was a kind, generous, caring and wonderful man, loved by all who knew him.”

Developing Stanford’s Department of Applied Physics

In 1967, Geballe joined Stanford as a professor in the departments of Applied Physics and Materials Science and Engineering.

Geballe’s legacy includes developing and shaping Stanford’s Department of Applied Physics, where he served as chair (1975-78), and the Center for Materials Research, where he served as director (1976-88). In these leadership roles, he recruited top faculty, fostered interdisciplinary research and promoted the growth of independent labs at Stanford.

In 1973, Geballe recruited Malcolm “Mac” Beasley to Stanford as a professor of applied physics. Roughly a decade later, Beasley chaired the search committee that helped recruit Aharon Kapitulnik, the current Theodore and Sydney Rosenberg Professor in Applied Physics in H&S, to Stanford.

(From left to right) Malcolm “Mac” Beasley, Theodore “Ted” H. Geballe and Aharon Kapitulnik, the members of the Kapitulnik-Geballe-Beasley research group. (Image credit: Courtesy Ted Geballe)

Soon after, the trio formed the Kapitulnik-Geballe-Beasley group, which focused on researching superconductivity. When IBM’s Alex Müller and Georg Bednorz discovered high-temperature superconductivity in copper-oxide compounds in 1986 – a finding that earned them a Nobel Prize the following year – Geballe was among the first to recognize its significance, Kapitulnik explained. “His natural leadership and his deep knowledge in solid-state chemistry helped our Kapitulnik-Geballe-Beasley group become world leaders in this field.”

“Ted helped create the field of materials physics and made it a central and contemporary subfield of all physics,” Beasley said. “Being a pioneer is not an easy route, and Ted Geballe traveled it with grace.”

At Stanford, Geballe’s impact extended beyond his discoveries, benefiting many Stanford faculty and students. In 1990, Geballe and his wife, Frances “Sissy” Koshland Geballe, established the endowed Theodore and Frances Geballe Professorship. Over the years, they made generous gifts to support faculty, students and programs in H&S, Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, the Humanities Center, the Stanford Science Fellows program and other areas around campus.

“He was renowned for his many contributions to physics and appreciated – largely anonymously – for his philanthropic activities,” said Steven Kivelson, the Prabhu Goel Family Professor in H&S and professor of physics.

Oil on canvas painting of Geballe by Pamela Davis Kivelson that hangs in the Geballe Laboratory for Advanced Materials. (Image credit: Courtesy Pamela Davis Kivelson)

In 2000, the new interdisciplinary Laboratory for Advanced Materials at Stanford was named the Theodore H. Geballe Laboratory for Advanced Materials (GLAM) in his honor.

Golden years

Geballe was born Jan. 20, 1920, in San Francisco to Alice Glaser, a talented amateur pianist, and Oscar Geballe, a lawyer. At the age of 17, Geballe met Sissy and started research as an undergraduate in the lab of William Giauque, professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.

Geballe’s first task was to measure the heat capacity of gold – that is, how much heat was needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of gold by 1 degree Celsius.

“I grew the gold into a single crystal,” Geballe explained in his memoir. “I had automated the rig so I could go home for the weekend because I had a date and wanted to borrow my parents’ car. I took off for San Francisco on Friday afternoon leaving the gold on the concrete floor in the middle of the open laboratory … when I returned on Monday morning, I found a solidified single crystal.”

Geballe received his BS degree in chemistry from UC Berkeley in 1941. That same year he was called to serve in World War II, which prompted Geballe and Sissy to quickly marry in the Koshlands’ living room.

Geballe served until 1945 as a captain in the U.S. Army Ordnance Department, where he maintained guns while touring in Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines. After Geballe was discharged from the Army, he was at a crossroads.

“I felt I was pretty far behind in life. I had to decide whether I wanted to go back to school,” Geballe wrote in his memoir. Giauque offered Geballe a position as a graduate student in his lab, but Geballe was unsure given his years away from science. Sissy encouraged him to go for it.

Geballe’s gamble paid off. In 1949, their research on the thermodynamics of substances at extremely low temperatures earned Giauque the Nobel Prize and Geballe a doctorate.

In 1952, Geballe moved to Bell Laboratories. Two years later, Geballe and his colleague Bernd Matthias discovered superconductivity in niobium 3 tin (Nb3Sn) at 18.3K (-427.27 Fahrenheit). Eventually, Nb3Sn replaced niobium-titanium (Nb-Ti) alloys and became the leading superconducting material in high (magnetic) field applications and is used in MRI machines. It is also used in the Large Hadron Collider and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project that aims to replicate the fusion processes of the sun.

Their discovery earned them the Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize from the American Physical Society (1970), for “experiments that challenged theoretical understanding and opened up the technology of high-field superconductors.”

Geballe received numerous awards, including the Von Hippel Award for his superconductor research in 1991. Geballe wrote and co-authored hundreds of scientific papers, and co-wrote the book Solid State Physics Advances in Research: Long Range Order in Solids (Academic Press, 1979) with Robert White.

At Stanford, Geballe held the endowed Theodore and Sydney Rosenberg Professorship in Applied Physics (1968-90). He was named a Guggenheim Fellow (1975) and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Chemical Society.

‘The best advisor you could have’

During the decades Geballe taught at Stanford, he advised more than 30 graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

“Ted was the best graduate advisor I could ever have had,” said Frances Hellman, who received her doctorate in applied physics (1985) and is a professor of physics at UC Berkeley.

“He supported me even when I questioned whether science was really my future, such as when I briefly decided that being a scuba diving instructor might be the path for me,” Hellman said, adding that Geballe gently replied to her, “But isn’t it hurricane season?”

“I found my way into science, not because he told me which way to go but because he cleared the way for me and believed in me,” Hellman said.

“Ted taught me the art of good materials science firsthand,” said Jonathan Sun, who received his doctorate in applied physics (1989). “Ted will always be my inspiration for greatness. I will really miss him.”

After Geballe retired from Stanford in 1990, he returned numerous times to co-advise students and teach a course he was especially proud of – a freshman seminar co-taught with John Fox called Energy Options for the 21st Century.

In his 2013 essay, “Why I haven’t retired,” Geballe wrote: “One of the most rewarding parts of doing research at a university is the students. They come fresh, enthusiastic, open to new ideas and believing that textbooks and professors know it all. Then they start thinking for themselves and I start learning from them.”

“Ted was the best advisor you could have,” said Daniel Worledge, Geballe’s last graduate student, who earned his doctorate in 2000. “One night I started a small fire in the lab, which caused the fire department to respond, to blow smoke out of the lab. Ted told me the next day, ‘Daniel, if you aren’t setting fire to the lab every now and then, you aren’t trying hard enough.’”

He is survived by his six children: Gordon Theodore Geballe, Alison Frances Geballe, Adam Philip Geballe, Monica Geballe, Jennifer Geballe Norman and Ernest Henry Geballe. He has 16 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren and many close in-laws, nieces and nephews. A private memorial service was held on Oct. 26. You can share memories and photos of Ted Geballe on the GLAM website.

Media Contacts

Holly Alyssa MacCormick, Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences: