In celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, the Brown University Department of Physics wishes to acknowledge the many contributions of its first female faculty member, Mildred Widgoff.
In 1958 Widgoff became the first woman to be appointed to a faculty position in Brown’s Department of Physics when she was named Research Assistant Professor. At the time she also held a position at Harvard, and would split her time between the two institutions until 1961 when she joined Brown’s faculty fulltime. She was appointed to a full professorship in 1974, and became an Emeritus Professor in 1995. She would remain a valued member of the department community until her passing in 2004.
During her tenure at Brown Widgoff participated in important experiments in the area of meson spectroscopy via photoproduction as part of a group of scientists from Brown, Brandeis University, Harvard, and MIT. As a member of the International Hybrid Spectrometer Collaboration (IHSC), she helped construct a large counter hodoscope system that was installed at Fermilab in the 1980s, and took an active role in the construction of the Large Volume Detector at Gran Sasso to do neutrino astrophysics.
By the time she joined Brown’s faculty in 1958, Widgoff was already an accomplished scientist. She received her BA in physics from the University of Buffalo in 1944, and according to her sister, Bernice L. Kliman, upon graduating at the young age of 19 was recruited to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project, then at Columbia University. While the Manhattan Project and other military research endeavors provided new scientific research opportunities for women during the war, the path forward for female scientists in the immediate post-war era was still littered with obstacles.
Despite the relatively inhospitable environment for women in science, Widgoff persisted in her physics studies, and embarked on graduate studies at Cornell University where she worked in the university’s celebrated cosmic-ray group under the leadership of Giuseppe Cocconi and Kenneth Greisen. In 1952 she received her PhD with a thesis entitled “Neutrons from Interactions of Mu Mesons in Various Targets”. After post-doctoral work at Cornell she joined the research staff of the Brookhaven National Laboratory and in 1955 became a research fellow at Harvard University’s Cyclotron Laboratory before coming to Brown.
In addition to her scientific research, Widgoff played an important role in the department’s administration, serving as its Executive Director from 1968 to 1980. She was an APS Fellow who served as chair of the organization’s New England section, and chaired one of the earliest APS committees on the status of women in physics. In addition she served on numerous NSF panels on awards for female faculty, and served as a trustee of the American Institute of Physics’ Insurance Trust. A dedicated educator, Widgoff was also active with Inner-City Teachers of Science (ICTOS), a group at Brown that worked to improve the teaching of physical sciences in inner city schools.
As she blazed a path for women in physics, Widgoff was beloved by her students and colleagues for her uniquely positive outlook and for her love of physics. Department faculty and staff who knew her still remember her fondly as both a caring and devoted friend and outstanding physicist who contributed much to the fields now called particle physics and particle astrophysics, as well as her revolutionary contributions to detector technology.
Pete Bilderback, Department of Physics
[The author gratefully acknowledges the input of Bob Lanou and David Cutts who provided most of the information in this article.]