Ralph Alanson Sawyer (1895 -1978) was a distinguished physicist and an important leader in American science.
A New Hampshire native, he graduated from the Atkinson Academy in 1911 and in 1915 from Dartmouth. He then went to the University of Chicago where, under the direction of R A Millikan, he finished his PhD in 1919, a time during which he served as a scientific liaison officer in the U.S. Navy. Sawyer then joined the faculty of the Physics Department at the University of Michigan, an affiliation that he retained for his entire career.
At Michigan he began by doing pioneering work in ultraviolet spectroscopy for studies of atomic structure; he also did much to develop industrial applications of spectroscopy. In later years his talent for administration brought him to important positions of scientific, military, and academic leadership that extended well beyond his formal retirement from Michigan in 1964.
Ralph Sawyer was the civilian director of the 1946 Bikini atomic bomb tests, became dean of the Rackham Graduate School in 1947, and vice president for research at the University of Michigan in 1959. He was president of the Optical Society of America from 1955–57 and was awarded their Frederic Ives Medal in 1963. He was chairman of the board of governors of the American Institute of Physics 1959-1971, service for which he received the K.T. Compton medal in 1972.
Ralph Sawyer died in 1978, 83 years of age, in Ann Arbor.
More details of Sawyer’s career can be found in the obituary written by Dick Crane (Physics Today Vol 32, pp 90-92, March 1979.)
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