Edward Mills Purcell


Honorary Degree Recipient

  • Doctor of Engineering, Purdue University 1953

Edward Mills Purcell (1912-1997), born in Taylorville, Illinois, shared Nobel Prize in Physics in 1952 with Felix Bloch for their development of new methods for nuclear magnetic precision measurements and discoveries in connection therewith.

Professor Purcell studied electrical engineering at Purdue University, graduating in 1933. After spending a year as an exchange student at the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, Germany, he obtained his master's and Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. He became an instructor at Harvard in 1938 and during World War II he was a group leader at the MIT radiation laboratory where radar was being perfected. Purcell studied various subjects such nuclear magnetism, radio astronomy, astrophysics and biophysics, associating with I. I. Rabi and others who had made discoveries concerning the atomic nucleus.

Purcell discovered that by using a strong magnetic field and precisely tuned microwaves one can measure nuclear resonance frequency and magnetism. For this he shared the Nobel Prize with Felix Bloch of Stanford.

In astrophysics, he was the first to detect the 21 cm spectral line of neutral hydrogen in interstellar space as had been predicted earlier by van de Hulst. He had done this with a graduate student Harold Ewen on the roof of Harvard's Lyman Laboratory with an investment of $400 using a horn antenna.

He was a past president of the American Physical Society and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Philosophical Society and American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1967, he won the Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers, and in 1979, he received the National Medal of Science. Purcell served as a science advisor to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.

Obituary from the New York Times.

Last Updated: Apr 29, 2016 4:14 PM