Ralph Alanson Sawyer (1895 -1978) was an active member of the Michigan physics faculty for 45 years. He had a distinguished record for pure and applied research along with a talent for administration that brought him to important positions of scientific, military, and academic leadership. From 1919 to 1939 he rose from instructor to full professor within the physics department. With the onset of WWII he went on active duty with the Navy and then, back as a civilian, became the scientific director of the 1946 Bikini atomic bomb tests. The University then recalled him in 1947 to serve as dean of the Rackham Graduate School and, in 1959 added the title of vice president for research. He was president of the Optical Society of America from 1955–57 and chairman of the board of governors of the American Institute of Physics 1959-1971.
In 1967, Sawyer was interviewed at length by the distinguished science historian Charles Weiner; the transcript
of their conversation is available on the AIP website. (http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/4856_1.html)
The following text derives and is adapted from a short portion of that interview.
Ralph Sawyer graduated in 1915 from Dartmouth and by 1919 had finished his Ph.D. under Robert Millikan at the University of Chicago. In the summer of that year, Randall wrote a letter inviting Sawyer to join the Michigan faculty. The two men had not met, but Randall had been impressed by an article on ultraviolet spectroscopy that Sawyer and Millikan had published in the Physical Review. Randall, knowing that that Millikan had been busy and often away from Chicago during WWI, conjectured that Sawyer had done most of the work himself and thus was capable of independent research. The negotiations were entirely by correspondence; Sawyer first saw Ann Arbor when he arrived to join the University of Michigan faculty in September of 1919. He retained the affiliation with Michigan for his entire career.
Sawyer came to Ann Arbor to establish a research program, but he also knew that his responsibilities included teaching. He had been appointed as an instructor, and the standard teaching load for instructors was 12 hours per week; moreover, instructors did not have teaching assistants and so had to grade exams, quizzes, and homework themselves. For several years, then, Sawyer had five recitation sections, about 150 students in all, every semester.
In his 1967 interview with Wiener, Sawyer recalled this load as being nearly murderous. Nevertheless, he quickly attracted graduate students as he built a laboratory for visible and ultraviolet spectroscopy that complemented the infrared spectroscopy for which Michigan was already famous.