Physics professor Ajzenberg-Selove; honored by U.S.

Fay Ajzenberg-Selove
Fay Ajzenberg-Selove
Posted: September 05, 2012

Fay Ajzenberg-Selove, 86, of Haverford, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania and recipient of the National Medal of Science, died Wednesday, Aug. 8, of heart failure at home.

In 1998, Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove told an audience at Penncrest High School that when she began physics studies at Columbia University, she failed four out of five courses. "This did not deter me," she said. "I was entranced by the process of scientific discovery. I was a physics groupie."

She eventually earned a doctorate in physics from the University of Wisconsin, and in 1957, she became the first woman on the faculty at Haverford College, then all-male. One of her students was Bok Read, who became a chemistry teacher at Penncrest.

"We wrote down every word she said," Read told The Inquirer in 1998. "We didn't want to miss any of it. She was a wonderful teacher. . . . The caring came through."

In 1970, Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and applied for tenure two years later. She was turned down. The reasons cited were age and "inadequate research publications."

She was only 46 and had published more than anyone in the department except a professor who was a Nobel laureate. She filed a gender-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, and, in 1973, became tenured as only the second female professor in the university's School of Arts and Sciences.

In 1991, Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove was awarded Penn's Lindback Award for distinguished teaching. She became a professor emeritus in 2003.

Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove's principal scholarly work was reviewing and summarizing scientific papers dealing with the ways in which nuclei absorb and emit energy.

Her published work, focusing on the structure of light nuclei, has broad implications, said William Forman, a former student at Haverford. "As one example drawn from astrophysics, her work provides the foundation for calculating the production of the most abundant elements in the universe which are the basis of life, as well as solar and stellar structure and all manner of nuclear reactions," said Forman, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The daughter of Russian Jews, Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove spent her early childhood in Berlin and Paris. Her father was an engineer, her mother a pianist and mezzo-soprano. In 1940, the family fled German-occupied France and eventually settled in New York City.

She graduated from Julia Richman High School in New York and earned a bachelor's degree in engineering from the University of Michigan.

After earning her doctorate in 1952, she spent a summer working with Tom Lauritsen. That began a decades-long scientific and personal collaboration. "She was part of our family," said Lauritsen's daughter, Margaret Press.

Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove taught for a year at Smith College and then was on the faculty at Boston University from 1953 to 1957, the year she married physicist Walter Selove.

She was active in numerous professional organizations, including the American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society, where she founded the committee on women in physics.

In 1994, she published a memoir, A Matter of Choices: Memoirs of a Female Physicist.

Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove received the National Medal of Science, a presidential award, in 2007 "for her pioneering contributions in nuclear physics that have advanced research into many applications, including energy generation from fusion, dating of artifacts, and nuclear medicine; her passion for teaching; and her outstanding service to her profession."

She and her husband traveled to Paris every year. He died in 2010. She returned to Paris by herself last year, Press said.

There are no immediate survivors.

Services will be private.

Contact Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or