• Robert Hilton Meservey

    Photo courtesy of the Meservey family

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  • Meservey in his earlier years.

    Photo courtesy of the Meservey family

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Robert Meservey, pioneering MIT physicist, dies at 92

Buckley Prize winner was member of the Institute community for more than 50 years.


Robert Hilton Meservey, a longtime MIT research physicist, accomplished skier and Army veteran, died from a stroke on June 18 in Cambridge, Mass. He was 92.

After receiving his PhD from Yale University in 1961, Meservey joined the low-temperature physics research group at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Mass., the town where he lived for 25 years. In 1963, he moved to the Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory at MIT, where he helped with the installation of the low-temperature facilities for the laboratory and developed a vacuum evaporation and measurement facility for the study of thin-film superconductors. 

He became a senior research scientist at the laboratory and, beginning in 1980, was the leader of its thin-film superconductivity group. When the National Magnet Laboratory was moved to Florida he found funding from government sources to support the research group until he retired in 1994. He continued to work as a visiting scientist at MIT for nearly two more decades. Jagadeesh Moodera, a senior research scientist in the Department of Physics at MIT, described Meservey as having “a profound curiosity for the latest in science.”

In 2009, Meservey and three colleagues, including two other MIT scientists, received the Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Physics Prize — the highest award given by the American Physical Society — for “pioneering work in the field of spin-dependent tunneling and for the application of these phenomena to the field of magnetoelectronics.” Meservey was the author of more than 100 research articles and supervised several PhD students and postdocs. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a fellow of the American Physical Society.

His discovery of electron spin-polarized tunneling in 1970, with Paul Tedrow of MIT, demonstrated for the first time that electron spin could carry information in an electrical current, and that that information could be detected by superconducting or magnetic devices called tunnel junctions, making new designs of electronic circuits, such as magnetic memories, appear possible. The research, mainly at low temperatures, with superfluid helium, superconductivity and magnetism led to the discovery of the magnetic-field splitting of the quasiparticle states in superconducting aluminum. This provided a way to obtain a pure tunnel current of either spin direction to probe the spin density of states of other metals near the Fermi energy. Results include measurements of the spin polarization of many three-dimensional ferromagnetic metals and the heavy rare-earth metals and studies of the effect of spin-orbit scattering and other theoretical predictions.

In 1995, working with Moodera, Meservey participated in the discovery of large magneto-resistance in ferromagnetic-ferromagnetic tunnel junctions at room temperature, a breakthrough which has enabled the development of the current generation of computers with extreme high-density drives and of nonvolatile magnetic memory and logic devices, thus spawning spintronics, one of the most dynamic fields in condensed-matter physics today. 

In a totally unrelated field of endeavor, Meservey’s wide-ranging intellectual curiosity led him to investigate plate tectonics in the days before it had become accepted dogma. He made detailed maps of continental-shelf boundaries and published papers supporting the concept of continental drift.

Meservey was born in Hanover, N.H., in 1921. At Dartmouth, he was captain of the ski team and won the Eastern Slalom Championship during the winter of 1941-42.  Upon graduating, he volunteered for the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, serving as a corporal instructor in skiing, rock climbing and winter survival. Awarded the Soldier’s Medal for saving the lives of two soldiers during maneuvers in West Virginia, he was sent to Engineer Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Ft. Belvoir, Va. From 1944 to 1946, as an Army Engineer officer, second lieutenant, he volunteered for duty in the Pacific Theatre, delivering night vision equipment, but was assigned to developing heat-sensing equipment at the Engineer Research and Development Laboratory (ERDL) until discharged in 1946. 

After the war, Meservey pursued a career as an independent photographer for several years, photographing several famous people, including Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy. He completed a series of photographs of Dartmouth College and did fashion and architectural photography in New York City and Newport, R.I making many illustrations for Architectural Heritage of Newport Rhode Island, published in 1952. His most well-known photograph was of Jacqueline Bouvier, later Jacqueline Kennedy, descending the stairs at her coming-out party, which appeared on magazine covers when John F. Kennedy became president and was used in many later books.

During the Korean War, he worked as a physicist in the development of night vision equipment at the ERDL and later, during graduate school, as a consultant for Perkin-Elmer Co. He was married to Evelyn Bradford Miller of Arlington, Va., in 1953.

Meservey is survived by Evelyn, his wife of 60 years; their two married daughters, Diana Meservey of Piedmont, Calif. and Cambridge, Mass. and Sarah Meservey of Arlington, Va.; and four grandchildren. A funeral service will be held on July 14.


Topics: Memorial services, Obituaries, Photography, Physics, Staff

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