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Kendall, Henryfree

(09 December 1926–15 February 1999)
  • Kurt Gottfried

Kendall, Henry (09 December 1926–15 February 1999), Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Nobel Prize–winning physicist, was born in Boston, the son of Henry P. Kendall, a highly successful self-made businessman, and Evelyn Way Kendall, who was originally from Canada. Kendall grew up in Sharon, Massachusetts, where he attended public school before enrolling at Deerfield Academy, a college preparatory school in Massachusetts, for his secondary education. Upon graduating in 1945, he entered the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and helped transport troops across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1946 he enrolled in Amherst College, where he majored in mathematics and did undergraduate research and a thesis in physics. In 1950 he became a physics graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and he earned his Ph.D. in 1955 with an experiment on the spectrum of positronium under the supervision of the professor Martin Deutsch.

After two years as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT and at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Kendall spent five years studying the electromagnetic structure of the proton and more complex atomic nuclei by using high-energy electrons produced by accelerators at Stanford University, often in collaboration with the physicists Jerome Friedman and Richard Taylor, who were also members of the research staff at Stanford.

In 1962 Kendall was appointed to the faculty at MIT, where he was to remain until his death. Shortly afterward, a long-term collaboration with Friedman and Taylor was formed. The team conducted its experimental studies of proton and neutron structure using scattering of electrons produced at the newly created Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). This work eventually produced astonishing results in that scattering through large angles was found to be far more prevalent than anticipated because the then-prevalent theory assumed a smooth charge distribution that would not produce scattering through such large angles. Analysis of these data, in collaboration with the theoretical physicist James Bjorken of SLAC, led to the realization that these results showed that the proton and neutron are composed of point-like constituents and are in conformity with the quark model introduced somewhat earlier by Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig, who both (independently) proposed that protons and neutrons consisted of a substructure called “quarks.” In 1990 the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Friedman, Kendall, and Taylor for their work, which is universally recognized as being one of the critical contributions to the understanding of the elementary particles.

In 1969 Kendall was a founding member of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) at MIT and served as its chairman from 1974 to 1999. At its inception, UCS focused on the accelerating Cold War nuclear arms race and criticized the Johnson and Nixon administrations' plans for missile defenses, which it believed would only speed up the race without providing any security. Later UCS became concerned with ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants, improving the efficiency of energy generation, and stemming global climate change. Kendall was deeply engaged in making the public and policy makers aware of the threat posed by climate change and advocated technologies that would avoid the burning of fossil fuels. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982.

Henry Kendall was, throughout his life, an enthusiastic outdoorsman; in youth and middle age, he was one of the leading American mountaineers, a skilled pilot, and a renowned photographer. Since his New England childhood he had a deep interest in the sea and became an expert diver in summer and winter, going as far afield as the Falklands. He died accidentally during a shallow freshwater dive at the Wakulla Springs State Park in the North Florida panhandle while participating in a project to map its vast underwater cave system.


For biographical information, see Henry W. Kendall, “Autobiography,” Also of interest is a November 1986 oral history interview with Kendall conducted by Finn Aaserud found at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives of the American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD. An obituary appeared in the Los Angeles Times on 17 February 1999. For tributes from his MIT colleagues, see Robert J. Scales, “MIT Nobelist Henry Kendall dies at 72 while scuba diving in Florida lake,” MIT News, 16 February 1999.