Walter Massey, Brown's first African American professor of physics

walter e. massey
Photo Credit: Brown University Archives

Walter E. Massey came to Brown University as its first African American professor of physics in 1970 from the University of Illinois where he had worked on the many-body theory of liquids and solids. Before that, he earned his bachelor of science in physics and mathematics from Morehouse College, and his master’s and doctorate in physics from Washington University in St. Louis, MO. 

At Brown Massey did important work in conjunction with Professor Humphrey Maris on the attenuation and velocity of sound in liquid helium at low temperatures. In a paper published in Physical Review Letters in July of 1970, they demonstrated that Soviet Nobel Laureate Lev Landau had made a critical mistake in his theory of excitations in superfluid helium.

While at Brown Massey became increasingly interested in the problem of how to bring people from historically underrepresented groups into the sciences, and began to focus more of his efforts on administration. He founded the Inner City Teachers of Science program, in which Brown University undergraduates studying to be science teachers served as mentors to High School students in urban areas. Massey also served as Dean of the College before leaving Brown in 1979 to lead the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago.

walter e. massey
Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

In 1990 President George H.W. Bush appointed Massey director of the National Science Foundation where he was a strong proponent for fundamental research and science education, as well as advocating for measures to increase participation in the sciences from minorities and women. He later served as the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, chair of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, and founded the African Academy of Sciences and the National Society of Black Physicists, along with serving as a science advisor to multiple U.S. presidents.

In 1993 Massey was appointed provost and vice president of academic affairs for the University of California system before returning to his undergraduate alma mater, Morehouse College, to serve as president between 1995 and 2007.

Massey currently serves as chancellor of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he served as president from 2010 to 2016. In addition to his science advocacy, Massey has long been an advocate for arts education, and also served as chair of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design. He is the only person to have received both the Enrico Fermi award (given by the Italian Physical Society) and the Public Humanities Award (given by Illinois Humanities). In addition, over his career Massey has been awarded over thirty honorary doctorates and been honored with multiple awards, including the Distinguished Service Citation of the American Association of Physics Teachers.