Robert Bigham Brode, Physics: Berkeley

Professor Emeritus

Professor Emeritus Robert Bigham Brode died February 19, 1986 in his home in Berkeley, California. Robert was one of triplets born June 12, 1900, in Walla Walla, Washington. Robert and his brothers Wallace and Malcolm all became distinguished scientists following the example of their father, who was a professor of biology at Whitman College in Walla Walla.

Bob Brode's young life included not only science but also a cultural general education, including music. He became a proficient flute player, contributing enjoyment to others and gaining personal pleasure for many years.

Leaving Whitman with a bachelor's degree in 1921, Bob went to Cal Tech where he earned the Ph.D. degree in physics in 1924. The remarkable fact about this degree is not that it took only three years to win, but that it was the first Ph.D. degree in physics awarded by Cal Tech, which was then developing its scientific program under the direction of Robert A. Millikan.

Brode's research work, starting with his first work published in 1925, showed that molecules such as nitrogen and carbon monoxide, or methane and argon, with similar arrangements of their external electrons have very similar cross sections for collisions with slow electrons. He extended such measurements on slow electron collisions, obtaining results which were difficult to explain using classical physics. It was not until 1966, when wave-mechanical theories and modern computers were available, were his results completely understood. From then on, his early work was widely used in analysis of the scattering of charged particles at low energies.

Brode started his professional experience as an associate physicist in the Bureau of Standards. He held a Rhodes Scholarship in Oxford, 1924-25, a National Research Fellowship at Göttingen 1925-26, and a research appointment at Princeton in 1926-27.

He was appointed assistant professor of physics in the University of California, Berkeley, in 1927.


Brode's advances through the academic ranks were unusually rapid. He was advanced to tenure as an associate professor in 1930 and professor in 1932. During this period, he continued his research on interactions of slow electrons in various gases, a field now important in research on plasma physics.

In 1934-35, he held a Guggenheim Fellowship which enabled him to work with P.M.S. Blackett at Birkbeck College, London, on counter-controlled cloud chambers. He was enthusiastic about the scientific results that could be obtained using these new techniques to study the specific ionization and momentum of high energy cosmic rays.

With his student Dale Corson, who later became President of Cornell University, Brode was able to separate electrons, protons, and mesons and measure their masses.

World War II interrupted Brode's work with particles in cosmic rays. He went to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and worked on the development of the proximity fuse. He then went to the Los Alamos Laboratory, and became a group leader for fusing.

David Judd, now a senior lecturer in the Department of Physics, describes some of the activities of Bob and Bernice Brode during that time:

“Many of my memories of that frantic period are jumbled, but a few are very clear. No one could possibly have had a more inspiring, demanding, and sympathetic boss under those remarkable conditions. Bob and Bernice were very outgoing and hospitable to young people. They enjoyed the New Mexico ambience when time allowed, and shared their experiences with their younger colleagues and friends. They enjoyed folk dancing to all hours on occasion. Bob played the flute in the local amateur symphony. The picture as I saw it was of a sincere, sophisticated but unaffected couple doing what they could to help others and maintain a civilized environment during a time of great stress. Bernice has written a charming extended account of this period in their lives which I commend to all who have not read it.”

Returning to Berkeley in 1946, Brode resumed his teaching and research in cosmic rays. He designed a cosmic ray detector built to fly in a B-29 at an altitude of 30,000 feet. He measured the east-west asymmetries at sea level and at 12,000 feet on the top of a mountain. But as he grew older, he was called upon for activities in the Federal Government, the Statewide Academic Council of the University, the Budget Committee and the Educational Policy Committee on the campus. He was a leader of the faculty against the “Oath” controversy.

Dean Lincoln Constance describes Brode's activities during these troubled times:

“In December 1948, Brode and I were appointed to the Senate Committee on Budget and Interdepartmental Relations to fill out unexpired terms. This

was the classroom in which I learned most of what I know about academic citizenship. Bob was both my classmate and my instructor, since he was more experienced than I in such matters. The period was a difficult one for the system of faculty government on which Berkeley had always prided itself. It was the era of McCarthyism and the Loyalty Oath, when old friendships were shattered and deep fissures of mistrust appeared between faculty and administration that have never, in my opinion, completely healed. It was also the time that the individual campuses were separating from the northern and southern divisions of the Academic Senate and establishing their independent local committees. There was real concern that University-wide standards might fall victim to irresistible local pressures. The brunt of the pressures fell upon the Budget Committee, which had to be at once sensitive, courageous, fair, and firm.

“In our first year together Brode and I often disagreed. Our arguments were friendly but sometimes heated; he did not abandon a position readily.

“In our second year Bob became a most successful chairman of the committee, bringing to that role his characteristic qualities of forthrightness, integrity, and deep concern for the welfare of the University and all its members. He was invariably well informed, patient, and fair. He could soothe the rumpled feathers of a dean, and still grill him as effectively as a district attorney. The welfare of the faculty was always a prime consideration. In the year of his chairmanship I found him easy to work with, perhaps because we both believed so profoundly that the governance of the University was too important to be left solely to the administration.”

Heavy though his administrative tasks were, his teaching and research were not neglected. Starting in June 1946 when he returned from Los Alamos, he was responsible for 19 successful students who earned their Ph.D. degrees. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1949, at the same time his identical twin Wallace, a chemist, was elected.

Brode's strong administrative skills brought appointments on numerous governmental agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as the Board of Foreign Scholarships to which he was appointed by President J.F. Kennedy. In Berkeley he served as acting director of the Space Sciences Laboratory in 1964-65, and director of Education Abroad in the United Kingdom in 1965-67. He retired in 1967.

In Fall 1985, he was still well enough to sing as a retired member of the Monks of the Faculty Club, attending a rehearsal in November. It was one of his favorite annual activities, singing Christmas carols. Three months later the Monks sang at his memorial service.

He is survived by Bernice Hedley Bidwell whom he married on 16

September 1926, a son, John Brode of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and 3 grandchildren, Michel, David, and Dina.

William B. Fretter David L. Judd John N. Reynolds