WSU honors science alumni

Washington State University honored two of its most prestigious, internationally recognized science alumni Sept. 6 when it renamed Science Hall for Philip Abelson and the late Neva Abelson, long-time WSU supporters. Leon J. Radziemski, dean emeritus of the College of Sciences, presided over the public ceremony.

The idea to rename the science building “Abelson Hall” received “hearty approval” from the Board of Regents, said WSU President V. Lane Rawlins. But he was clear as to who should feel privileged.

“We are the ones to feel honored,” the president said to Philip Abelson, who attended the event. “It’s an honor that you would accept a building named for you at this great institution.”

Together, Joe King, president of WSU’s Board of Regents, and Rawlins unveiled the building plaque. “Our hope is that this building will produce more Phil and Neva Abelsons,” King said.

When Philip Abelson took the podium, he did so to a standing ovation. “I’m highly pleased,” he said. “I’ve seen the inside of this building … I doubt very much that there is a hall on campus with more public interaction than here.”

A crowd of more than 100 people attended the ceremony. Several other speakers took the podium to offer their praise and congratulatory remarks. Among these were Michael D. Griswold, interim dean of the College of Sciences; John N. Abelson, nephew of Philip and Neva Abelson and professor emeritus at California Institute of Technology; and James F. Short, Jr., WSU professor emeritus of sociology.

A nuclear research pioneer and promoter of scientific research, Philip Abelson, 89, lives in Washington, D.C. Neva Abelson helped develop a critical blood factor test that is used worldwide. They both received the prestigious WSU Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award, he in 1962 and she in 1989.

The couple met at WSU where they earned chemistry bachelor degrees, he in 1933 and she in 1934. Philip received a master’s degree in physics from WSU in 1935. He and Neva married in 1936. Philip then earned his Ph.D. in nuclear physics in 1939 from the University of California at Berkeley.

Philip was a leader in the development of the nuclear submarine. He served as president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., from 1971 – 78 and as editor of “Science Magazine” from 1962 – 85.

Neva Abelson, who died in 2000, was one of the first women to graduate with a medical degree from John Hopkins University. During her career, she co-developed a single test for the Rh blood factor. The discovery has saved the lives of millions of adults and infants through safer blood transfusions. She also did research involving blood group antibodies, blood diseases of infants and the pathogenesis of rheumatoid arthritis at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has been recognized with highest honors from the American Association of Blood Banks.

Neva and Philip Abelson both provided endowed support for graduate fellowships that have provided funding for many students each year. Philip Abelson also established the Paul Anderson Distinguished Professorship of Physics.

Philip Abelson also has been honored with several major awards. He received the President’s National Medal of Science, a Distinguished Public Service Award from the National Science Foundation and the Science Achievement Award from the American Medical Association. In 1945, he received the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal.

The Abelson family has more WSU connections. Philip’s father, Olaf, and brother, Harold, earned bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering in 1909 and 1934 respectively, while his mother, Ellen, took classes at WSU.

The family has an impressive scientific background. It includes Philip and Neva’s daughter, Ellen A. Cherniavsky, Silver Spring, Md. She holds a Ph.D. in operations research from Cornell University and is a senior engineer in the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development with MITRE, a corporation providing systems engineering, research and development, and information technology support to the government.

Their nephew is John Abelson, WSU 1960 physics, a California Institute of Technology professor emeritus. John#s wife is geneticist Christine Guthrie, professor of biochemistry at the University of California San Francisco. The WSU Abelson Family Lecture, was funded by their endowed gift. The lecture series honors members of his family, many of whom are closely linked to WSU.

Also, the family includes John’s brother, LeRoy Abelson (WSU 1965), and his father, the late Harold Abelson (WSU 1934), both WSU engineering graduates and highly respected professional civil engineers.