September/October 2022Vol. XXXV No. 1

Prof. Vera Kistiakowsky, 1928-2021

Jonathan A. King, Ruth Perry, Robert P. Redwine

Prof. Vera Kistiakowsky passed away on December 11, 2021 at the age of 93. Dr. Kistiakowsky was the first woman to be appointed a professor of physics at MIT (1972). She subsequently founded the MIT Faculty Newsletter, in response to the precipitous closing of the Department of Applied Biological Sciences under then Provost John Deutch and Dean of Science Gene Brown.

Quoting from her NY Times obituary: “Vera was an adventurous woman ahead of her time. She was a physicist who studied elementary particles and the light from distant stars. She was an early advocate for women in science and a peace activist who called for the abolition of nuclear weapons. . . . Her contributions to experimental particle physics ranged from the design and construction of detectors to their use measuring the properties of high energy sub-atomic particles. Later in her career Vera moved to observational astrophysics, studying the light emitted by supernovae and planetary nebulae. She was a fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and held an honorary doctorate from Mount Holyoke.”

Vera Kistiakowsky was one of the country’s outstanding scientists of the twentieth century.

She moved to astrophysics because she did not enjoy the work required to build and support the large research teams necessary in experimental physics. She disdained that kind of power and resented the energy that it took away from intellectual work. Energetic and fit, she climbed mountains as a hobby, and tackled several in the Himalayas when she turned 65.

Vera Kistiakowsky also had a very strong interest in education and was a leader in the Department of Physics in this effort. With her tart and no-nonsense demeanor, she was an unfailingly generous colleague. She was especially helpful to young faculty members who often had little experience in teaching when they joined the MIT faculty. She provided not only important material to help them in their teaching, but also honest and thoughtful evaluations of their teaching efforts and outcomes. Many faculty members remember her for these contributions and still miss her presence.

Kistiakowsky was also a pioneering advocate for women in science, publishing early scholarship and founding Women in Science and Engineering in Boston with her friends Elizabeth Baranger and Vera Pless. She founded the American Physical Society Committee on Women in Physics and served as President of the Association of Women in Science.

Public hearing on nuclear weapons and disarmament.
Organized by the World Council of Churches. 1981

Vera was a peace activist, lecturing for nuclear disarmament around the county, and serving on the board of the Council for a Livable World. At MIT she was very outspoken about the need for nuclear disarmament and denounced a number of Department of Defense sponsored projects. She was very active in efforts to promote equity, ethics, and free expression at MIT, which is why she founded the MIT Faculty Newsletter. She is reported to have subsequently said of the Newsletter, “It’s not the radical rag that I had hoped it would become, but it will serve.”

With the faculty meetings chaired by the administration, it was very difficult to make motions opposing the closing of the Department of Applied Biological Science. When the Provost’s office declined to provide the internal mailing addresses of the faculty, Vera went through the directory, hand typed faculty office addresses onto mailing stickers and mailed out the first issue of what became the MIT Faculty Newsletter. Here is the link to the first communication, her “zeroth” issue.

All MIT faculty owe Vera Kistiakowsky gratitude for refusing to be a bystander and for taking on the interests of graduate students, research staff, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty whose careers were put at risk by that arbitrary action. We miss her clarity, commitment, and, most of all, her courage to speak up about matters of concern to MIT, to the nation, and to the world.