Bryn Mawr Mourns Passing of Professor Emeritus of Physics and Computer Science John R. Pruett

Posted November 20th, 2014 at 12:26 pm.

The following email was sent to faculty, students, and staff by President Kim Cassidy on Wednesday, Nov. 19.

Dear Faculty, Students and Staff,

I write with more news of the life and career of John R. Pruett, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Computer Science, who passed away on November 10, 2014.

Professor Pruett received his BA, MS and PhD from Indiana University in 1947, 1948, and 1949, respectively.  As an undergraduate, he was a teaching assistant in physics and a research assistant at Indiana University for the Manhattan Project and also worked at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Naval Research Laboratory. These experiences and his knowledge of ship gun fire control systems and infrared night vision served him well during his time in the Navy during World War II, which had interrupted his undergraduate studies.

John came to Bryn Mawr in 1949 as Assistant Professor of Physics; he was named Associate Professor in 1955 and Full Professor in 1964, a position he held until his retirement from the College in 1989.  His teaching included a variety of graduate and undergraduate courses, ranging from general, atomic and nuclear physics, and classical, quantum and statistical mechanics, to optics, electronics, and a number of courses in computer science.  While at Bryn Mawr, John served as Chair of his department and as a member of the Admissions Committee, Class of 1902 Lecture Committee, Curriculum Committee, and Computer Committee, among many others.

His research in nuclear physics was supported by the National Science Foundation and he received two significant grants from the Schering Corporation.  In addition, John was one of two representatives appointed by the U.S. Department of State to represent the U.S. at the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development Conferences in Uppsala, Sweden and Milan, Italy.   He was the associate editor of the International Dictionary of Physics and Electronics (1961) and a contributing editor to theInternational Encyclopedia of Chemical Science.

Former colleague Al Albano recalls John’s building of a nuclear physics lab early in his tenure at the College and notes that this lab demonstrated that it was possible to do quality research in a modestly funded laboratory at a small college, particularly at a time when most work in nuclear physics was being done in large university centers and federal laboratories.

Neal Abraham, a graduate student of John’s and later a faculty colleague, remembers John’s dedication to teaching and mentoring, “From my time as a graduate student in the graduate Quantum Mechanics course, I most clearly recall his explanation of quantum mechanical angular momentum.  His approach to that explanation served me well in the Relativistic Quantum Mechanics course I later took at the University of Pennsylvania, prepared me for that course better than the preparation my fellow students from Penn had received, and gave me an approach that I still use in my own teaching. […] as his teaching assistant, I recall his commitment to using demonstrations of various phenomena in the large lecture-based class meetings of introductory physics.  Though I had to work long hours to prepare the demonstrations he requested, he was a supportive coach for me as a first-year graduate student.”

John’s colleague Steve Smith notes John’s leadership in bringing computing to Bryn Mawr and developing its applications in the classroom and in administrative operations. President Emeritus Pat McPherson says, “John recognized very early on the importance of the computer and what it would and could mean to the academic and administrative life of the College.  He gave incredibly important leadership to a somewhat reluctant college as it began to embrace technology and he had the patience of Job in explaining how and why we needed to adjust our ways of doing business.  John was a kind and generous man who always had the best interests of the College in mind and was among its most prescient members in grasping the importance of the digital age.”

John is survived by his wife, Patricia Onderdonk Pruett ’51, MA ’61, PhD ’65, his son John Robert Pruett, Jr. and three grandchildren.

I will share any plans for a memorial service at the College at a later date.



Kim Cassidy

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