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Edward Mills Purcell. 30 August 1912 — 7 March 1997

Brebis Bleaney

Elected For.Mem.R.S. 1989


Professor Edward Purcell was a physicist of great distinction. With Felix Bloch he received the joint award of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1952, for the developments respectively of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and nuclear induction. In 1951, H.L. Ewen and Purcell (21)* detected radiation at the hydrogen hyperfine frequency of 1421 MHz coming from interstellar space, which created a new branch of astronomy. The Smith–Purcell effect (28) is now regarded as a potentially powerful source of radiation in the far infrared region of the spectrum. These were further achievements of prize–winning quality.

Edward Mills Purcell was born in Taylorville, Illinois, USA, the son of Edward A. Purcell and Mary Elizabeth Mills, both natives of Illinois. From public schools in Taylorville and Mattoon, Illinois, he won a scholarship to Purdue University, Indiana. He graduated in 1933 in electrical engineering and published two papers (1, 2) on thin films with Professor K. Lark–Horowitz.

Realizing that Purcell's gifts and interests lay in mathematics and physics, Lark–Horowitz invited him to take part in a research project on electron diffraction while he was still an undergraduate, and then recommended him for an exchange studentship in Germany. Purcell spent a year studying physics at the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, with Professor W. Wenzel. On his return he entered Harvard University to work under J.H. Van Vleck (For.Mem.R.S. 1967; Nobel Laureate in Physics 1981). With Malcolm Hebb, who later became Director of Research at the Laboratories of the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York, he made a theoretical study (3) of the properties of paramagnetic salts below 1 K. This publication was widely used for the interpretation of magnetic cooling experiments in low–ndash;temperature physics, including my own thesis work in 1937–39. Later, when I mentioned it, Purcell, always a modest man, said, ‘that was all Hebb’.

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