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The last gentlemen physicist – Alfred Lee Loomis

Historical Figures

Gentlemen scientists have made some of the most important contributions to the advancement of human knowledge. They were prevalent until the 20th century, but less so since then.

Marco Carlone / Dec. 3, 2022, 7:40 p.m.

Left to right: E.O. Lawrence, Arthur Compton, Vannever Bush, James B. Constant, Karl Compton, Alfred Loomis. Meeting at Berkeley, March 29, 1940. Photo from United States Department of Energy.

Have you ever dreamed of being the “gentlemen” scientist, that person who pursues scientific knowledge for the pure desire to advance knowledge and better the world? Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, and Nicola Tesla are a few of many examples. Alfred Lee Loomis was an American investment banker who traded nascent public utility bonds to become a multimillionaire. Using his wealth and passion for science, he became one of the most influential people in 20th century United States.
He graduated from Yale, and then trained as a Lawyer, graduating from Harvard Law School, and serving on the Harvard Law Review Editorial Board. He went on to become business partner with Landon K. Thorne, in the firm Bonbright and Co. which was an investment banking firm that financed many of the largest and earliest public utilities in the United States. He used his wealth as Wall Street financier to build a laboratory at Tuxedo Park, just outside of New York, where his natural scientific abilities caught the attention of many of the world leading physicist of the day, including Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Frank, Fermi, Compton, Oppenheimer, all of whom he hosted at his Tuxedo Park mansion.
He was an avid sailor, and designed boats that raced in the America’s Cup. His son went on to win a gold medal in sailing at the 1948 Olympics. Another son, Henry Loomis, was appointed by Richard M. Nixon to head the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the 1970s. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1940, and received Honorary degrees from Wesleyan University, Yale University, and from the University of California. He also helped to start the field of electroencephalography and was the original owner of the land that became Hilton Head, the famous golf resort in South Carolina.
One of his most important contributions to scientific advancement came during the Second World War, where he became an advisor to the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. In this capacity, he was a member of the group that welcomed the Tizard Mission to the United States, which demonstrated the pulsed magnetron invented by Randall and Boot at Birmingham University. He recognized the superiority of the pulsed design over the continuous wave system that had been developed at Stanford by the Varian brothers and Hanson, and based on his instincts, he helped to create the MIT Radiation Lab by chairing the committee that established it. The Radiation Laboratory went on to develop pulsed magnetrons that were used to build the radar systems that went into the Spitfire and Hurricane planes of the Royal Airforce. Other designs were fitted into reconnaissance planes that were used to detect submarines. It is without doubt that his contributions to the war effort were instrumental in defeating the Germans in WWII.
Still in his capacity as advisor to Secretary Stimson, he helped start the Manhattan project, and facilitated the involvement of Robert Oppenheimer with the project. He developed a personal friendship with Ernest Lawrence and played a large role in the development of the cyclotron and the start of “Big Science”. After the war, he was a member of the original board of trustees for the RAND Corporation, which today is a world leading research organization, employing 1770 people in 48 countries and funding thousands of research initiatives.
He was a natural “Director of Research.” He understood the science that was brought to him; he knew where to place efforts so that the science could succeed; and had the business skills to see the projects through in the most complex environments. In reading his many accomplishments, his story reads lake an early twentieth century Silicon Vallee entrepreneur mixed with the selfless wisdom of great leaders, who built vast personal wealth and used this to advance the world. The challenges that he faced were so important that the future of the world really was in play.
Today, it feels like we are coming up against similar challenges, although without the benefit of hindsight to guide us along the way. Loomis passed away at age 87 in 1975. A true gentleman scientist, his wisdom would still serve the world well if he were here to advise us.

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