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Robert Meservey, award-winning physicist, dies at 92

Dr. Robert Meservey was a scientist at MIT for more than 40 years, pioneering award-winning developments in physics and exploring other scientific fields.

Robert Meservey was a scientist at MIT for more than 40 years, pioneering award-winning developments in physics and exploring other scientific fields.

An award-winning physicist at MIT, Robert Meservey also was a respected photographer and such an adept outdoorsman that he was an instructor with the Army’s legendary 10th Mountain Division during World War II.

“He was a champion in every sense of the word,” said Jagadeesh Moodera, a senior research scientist who worked for many years with Dr. Meservey in the physics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Moodera, a member of the research team led by Dr. Meservey that was awarded the Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Physics Prize in 2009, said he knew his colleague for many years before realizing how accomplished he was outside the laboratory.

“He was a true scientist in absolute terms, which is very rare,” Moodera said. “And he was absolutely modest. I never knew all the things he accomplished. He might say, ‘I did a little bit of skiing, I did a little bit of photography,’ and that’s all he would say about that.”

Dr. Meservey, whose work contributed to the emerging field of spintronics and the development of computers that have extreme high-density hard drives, died of complications of a stroke June 18 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was 92 and lived for many years in Cambridge and Lexington.

His daughter Diana, of Cambridge and Piedmont, Calif., described him as a “devoted family man, a loving husband and father.”

Dr. Meservey, she said, was a “fun, creative, and practical person” who was able to “fix a kitchen sink, rebuild the back porch, quote poetry.”

He also was an expert skier. While a student at Dartmouth College, Dr. Meservey won a regional slalom championship. In 1940, the Globe called him “Dartmouth’s brilliant sophomore ski sensation.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physics, he joined the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and was an instructor in skiing, rock climbing, and winter survival for soldiers headed to the mountains of Italy for combat duty during World War II.

He was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for saving the lives of two soldiers during maneuvers in West Virginia.

Rising to the rank of second lieutenant, he became an engineer officer assigned to the Engineer Research and Development Laboratory in Fort Belvoir, Va., where he helped develop heat-sensing and night-vision equipment. Dr. Meservey was discharged in 1946, but returned to the laboratory during the Korean War.

Between Army stints, he devoted much time to photography. Dr. Meservey photographed renowned public figures such as poet Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy.

Dr. Meservey’s daughter Sarah, of Arlington, Va., recalled that he also was friends with photographer Diane Arbus.

Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography of Arbus recounts some social encounters between Arbus and Dr. Meservey and his first wife, the former Pati Hill. Their marriage ended in divorce.

The son of a Dartmouth College physics professor, Robert Hilton Meservey was born in Hanover, N.H., in 1921 and graduated from The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., before enrolling at Dartmouth.

While working for the Engineer Research and Development Laboratory, he was introduced by mutual friends to Evelyn Bradford Miller. They married in 1953.

“It was very romantic,” said his second wife, a painter. “He was just wonderful, that’s all I can say. We had a wonderful 60 years together.”

Dr. Meservey decided to build a career in physics, which meant he needed an advanced degree, she said. When he began graduate work at Yale University at 32, he was nearly a decade older than most other students in the physics doctoral program.

He spent most of the 1950s engaged in graduate studies and consulting work for the technology company PerkinElmer, while living with his wife and two young daughters in an apartment in New Haven, Conn.

After he graduated with a doctorate, the family moved to Lexington and Dr. Meservey began working at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in 1961 as a physicist.

Two years later he moved to the Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory at MIT, where he spent the rest of his career.

A senior research scientist, he led the lab’s thin-film superconductivity group and pioneered many developments in fields including spintronics and magnetoelectronics. He also explored subjects such as plate tectonics and continental shelf boundaries that were not related to his field.

“He was so dedicated and full of enthusiasm, always trying to find the perfect solution,” Moodera said of his friend and mentor.

As a teacher and team leader, Dr. Meservey “was always positive, always open to new ideas and discussions,” said Moodera, who added that he “never met a scientist who had such an open mind.”

Dr. Meservey, who was a fellow of the American Physical Society, officially retired in 1994, but remained on the MIT staff as a visiting scientist.

“We would visit all the time. He was always curious about what was going on,” Moodera said. “He was interested in everything.”

In addition to his wife, Evelyn, and his daughters, Dr. Meservey leaves four grandchildren.

Throughout Dr. Meservey’s life he was a dedicated athlete who enjoyed running and cross-country skiing until he was “well into his 80s,” his daughter Sarah said.

He was also an artist, she said, recalling a “seven-foot, Venus de Milo-type statue in our dining room” among other works. “He was a scientist at heart, but he had an art angle to him that was really amazing.”

Diana said her father was “an original thinker” and “a man of integrity” who was “honest, kind, and very witty. He was a good listener and a good friend.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@ comcast.net.
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