Arthur Leonard Schawlow Biography

Arthur Leonard Schawlow was an American physicist who shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics. This biography of Arthur Leonard Schawlow provides detailed information about his childhood, life, research career, achievements, works & timeline.

Arthur Leonard Schawlow
Quick Facts

Birthday: May 5, 1921

Nationality: American

Famous: Physicists American Men

Died At Age: 77

Sun Sign: Taurus

Born in: Mount Vernon, New York, U.S.

Famous as: Physicist


Spouse/Ex-: Aurelia Townes

father: Arthur

mother: Helen

Died on: April 28, 1999

place of death: Palo Alto, California, U.S.

U.S. State: New Yorkers

More Facts

awards: Stuart Ballantine Medal (1962)
Marconi Prize (1977)
Nobel Prize for Physics (1981)
National Medal of Science (1991)

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Arthur Leonard Schawlow was an American physicist who shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics. Recognized for his work in developing the laser and laser spectroscopy, he also performed significant investigations in the areas of superconductivity and nuclear resonance. A very humble person despite his ground breaking research and achievements, he described himself as "the most uncompetitive person you ever saw" and felt that he was best suited to work as a team with other scientists. Born in the United States and raised in Canada, he developed a scientific approach to life quite early on. He tinkered with radio sets and other mechanical items he could find and read voraciously on various subjects. A brilliant student, he aspired to go to the University of Toronto to study radio engineering but the nation was still reeling under the Great Depression and his family was unable to afford the fees for his university education. However he was able to win a scholarship to study mathematics and physics at the faculty of Arts at the University of Toronto. Canada was at war when he graduated and he had to postpone his higher studies for a while. Eventually he was able to complete his research and embark on an academic career where his research focused on optics, in particular, lasers and their use in spectroscopy.

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Arthur Leonard Schawlow
Childhood & Early Life
  • Arthur Leonard Schawlow was born on 5 May 1921, in Mount Vernon, New York, U.S. to Arthur and Helen, who hailed from Latvia and western Canada, respectively. His father worked for a life insurance company. He had one elder sister.
  • The family moved to Canada at his mother’s urging when Arthur was a young boy. He was scientifically inclined from an early age and grew up tinkering with radio receivers and playing with his Meccano model set. A voracious reader, he read everything he could find on electrical, mechanical or astronomical subjects in the library.
  • He received his primary education from Winchester elementary school, the Normal Model School attached to the teacher's college, and Vaughan Road Collegiate Institute (high school). As a teenager he wanted to go to the University of Toronto to study radio engineering. His family, like many others in the 1930s, was struggling financially due to the Great Depression and could not afford his fees.
  • However he was able to win a scholarship in the faculty of Arts of the University of Toronto to study mathematics and physics. He enjoyed his university years and was thoroughly fascinated by physics. He also developed a love for jazz music during these years.
  • He graduated in 1941, when Canada was at World War II. He was required to serve the war efforts in some way and he taught the armed service personnel at the University of Toronto until 1944. During the war years he also worked at Research Enterprises Ltd., a Canadian factory that built radar equipment.
  • He continued his education after the war years and did his thesis research with Malcolm Crawford, a noted spectroscopist, and completed his PhD in 1949. He used high-resolution spectroscopy to study nuclear characteristics. By this time he had published seven papers, most notably on electric field distribution within nuclei.
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  • He received a Carbide and Carbon Chemicals postdoctoral fellowship and moved to Columbia University to work with Charles H. Townes. The two men formed a highly productive partnership and collaborated on the development of the first working maser (a device that produces and amplifies electromagnetic radiation mainly in the microwave region of the spectrum), the laser, and laser spectroscopy.
  • He accepted a position as a physicist at Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1951. He would spend a decade there, performing research that predominantly focused on superconductivity and nuclear quadrupole resonance.
  • He continued his collaboration with Charles Townes—now his brother-in-law—and worked with him on the book ‘Microwave Spectroscopy’ which was published in 1955. Over the years his stature as a physicist grew and he was offered faculty positions by several universities.
  • Schawlow accepted a full physics professorship at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, in 1961; he would work there for the rest of his career. He served as chairman of the department of physics from 1966 to 1970, and was appointed J.G. Jackson and C.J. Wood Professor of Physics in 1978. He retired to emeritus status in 1996.
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Major Works
  • A world authority on laser spectroscopy, he gained much acclaim for using lasers to study the interactions of electromagnetic radiation with matter. He had also contributed to the development of the first maser (a device using the stimulated emission of radiation by excited atoms to amplify or generate coherent monochromatic electromagnetic radiation in the microwave range) which was built by Charles Townes.
Awards & Achievements
  • Arthur Leonard Schawlow and Nicolaas Bloembergen were jointly awarded one half of the Nobel Prize in Physics 1981 "for their contribution to the development of laser spectroscopy." The other half went to Kai M. Siegbahn "for his contribution to the development of high-resolution electron spectroscopy."
  • He was also the recipient of Stuart Ballantine Medal (1962), Marconi Prize (1977), and National Medal of Science (1991).
Personal Life & Legacy
  • In 1951, Arthur Leonard Schawlow married Aurelia Townes, younger sister of his long-term collaborator, Charles Townes. The couple had one son and two daughters; their son was autistic. His wife died in a tragic accident in 1991.
  • In 1991 the NEC Corporation and the American Physical Society established the Arthur L. Schawlow Prize in Laser Science in his honor.
  • He suffered from several health problems including rheumatoid arthritis, leukemia and congestive heart failure in his later years. He died on April 28, 1999, shortly before his 78th birthday.

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Last Updated
- October 31, 2017
Arthur Leonard Schawlow

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