Skip to content ↓

MIT Nobelist Henry Kendall dies at 72 while scuba diving in Florida lake

CAMBRIDGE, MA--MIT Professor Henry W. Kendall of Sharon, MA, a 1990 Nobel Laureate in physics and longtime environmentalist, died Monday while exploring the wilderness he loved and worked to preserve. He was 72 years old.

Professor Kendall, who shared the Nobel with his MIT colleague, Professor Jerome Friedman, and Professor Richard Taylor of Stanford University, was taking photographs on a scuba expedition with a friend from the National Geographic Society at the Wakulla Springs State Park in Florida when he died. Fellow divers found him unconscious in 6 to 10 feet of water at about 5pm. He was flown to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital where doctors pronounced him dead on arrival.

The medical examiner conducted an autopsy on Tuesday and ruled out drowning as a cause of death, according to a spokesman for the Wakulla County Sheriff's office. "We are looking at some other things at this time," the spokesman said, including the equipment Professor Kendall was using, indicating that his death was an accident.

"Henry Kendall's death is a terrible loss to MIT, the scientific community and the world at large," said Professor Friedman. "Henry was an outstanding scientist and an outstanding human being who worked tirelessly for the betterment of society. He always saw the big picture and identified the big problems. He used political and scientific activity effectively to advance such goals as arms control, nuclear safety and a better environment.

"I worked with him for more than 40 years. He was a wonderful colleague and a wonderful friend. I will miss him terribly."

MIT President Charles M. Vest said:

"Recently I was stranded by bad weather in an airport but had the good fortune to spend those two hours talking with Henry Kendall about a wide range of matters. As always, it was an education.

"Henry Kendall was visionary, passionate and effective in his appeals to humankind to care for our planet and for each other. His understanding of the world ranged from subatomic physics to the issues and technologies of war and peace. He was an ardent environmentalist and excellent photographer. His span of interests and actions contributed greatly to MIT and to the worlds of science, politics and social action. "

Dean Robert J. Birgeneau of the MIT School of Science said:

"I, like many other people here at MIT, talked to Henry many times about a remarkable range of issues. He was a true independent spirit with a deep passion for a wide variety of social and scientific causes. Fortunately for us, Henry loved MIT, its faculty and its students and, of course, he himself was a great scientist and a dedicated educator.

"Without a doubt, my most joyful time at MIT was when I introduced Henry and Jerry Friedman at the lecture here celebrating their Nobel prize. Henry communicated wonderfully his brilliant mind, his love of physics, and his incredible gifts as a virtuoso experimentalist.

"Henry's untimely and tragic death is a great loss for all of us at MIT and for society as a whole."

Professor Marc Kastner, head of the MIT Department of Physics, said:

"I would like to emphasize that while Henry Kendall made great contributions to our understanding of physics and great contributions to a variety of humanitarian causes, he never stinted in his devotion to undergraduate education. We have always taken great pride in telling potential MIT undergraduates that our freshman laboratory was taught by Nobel Prize winner Henry Kendall. We will miss him as a colleague and a teacher."

Professor Friedman came to MIT in 1960 and Professor Kendall joined him a year later. They first worked together in the 1950s at Stanford. Their Nobel Prize-winning research provided the first experimental evidence for subnuclear particles called quarks, the most fundamental constituents yet known of heavy particles such as protons and neutrons. The work ultimately had a major impact in reconstructing some of the high-energy physics that attended the birth of the universe.

Professors Friedman, Kendall and Taylor were the key members of the research team that found the first confirming experimental evidence for the quark model, which Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig of Caltech had proposed in 1964. Professor Gell-Mann won the 1969 Nobel prize in physics in part for his theory of quarks (a name that was taken from a character's phrase in James Joyce's novel Finnegan's Wake). "A quark is to the atom as a quarter-inch ball (in diameter) is to the mass of the earth," explained Professor Friedman.

In the late 1960s, Professors Friedman, Kendall and Taylor executed a famous series of experiments on the scattering of electrons by protons, deuterons (a proton bound to a neutron), and heavier nuclei. Firing a beam of high-energy electrons at targets made of hydrogen or deuterium, the researchers were able to unravel mysteries in the data that characterized how the electrons were scattered.

In 1968, these investigations gave the first clear evidence of a charged, point-like substructure -- quarks -- inside these massive particles. The revelation went completely against the conventional model of the interiors of protons and neutrons as "mushy" regions. It was believed that no point-like substructure would be found within the nucleons -- protons and neutrons.

Professor Kendall, who overcame a childhood reading disability, studied mathematics at Amherst College, graduating in 1950, and earned a PhD in physics at MIT in 1955. He taught at Stanford from 1956-61 before joining the MIT faculty in 1961. He became a full professor in 1967 and was named the J.A. Stratton Professor of Physics in 1991.

In addition to his intellectual accomplishments, Professor Kendall was an expert mountain climber and scuba diver. An accomplished photographer, he chronicled his climbing and underwater adventures and enjoyed sharing the photographs with friends.

Born in Boston on Dec. 9, 1926, Professor Kendall grew up in Sharon and attended Deerfield Academy. He was in basic training at the US Merchant Marine Academy in 1945 when the first atomic bomb was dropped and served on a troop transport ship in the North Atlantic in 1945-46, at which time he transferred to Amherst.

Professor Kendall, a founding member of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in 1969, served as its chair for the past 25 years.

He has been deeply involved with arms control and nuclear power safety issues. He played a leading role in organizing statements about global problems from the scientific community, including The Call for Action at the Kyoto Climate Summit in 1997 and the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity in 1992. He was on a panel of scientists who briefed President Clinton on the dangers of global warming in 1997.

For 10 years, Professor Kendall served as a consultant to the Department of Defense on classified matters as a member of the Jason Group and the Institute for Defense Analysis.

He won a number of prizes in addition to the Nobel including the Bertram Russell Society Award in 1982, The Environmental Leadership Award from Tufts University's Lincoln Filene Center in 1991, The Ettore Majorana-Erice Science for Peace Prize in 1994, the Award for Leadership in Environmental Stewardship from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in 1997 and the Nicholson Medal for Humanitarian Service from the American Physical Society in 1998.

He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences.

Professor Kendall wrote numerous articles and co-authored five books, including Energy Strategies--Toward a Solar Future in 1980, Beyond the Freeze in 1982, Fallacy of Star Wars in 1985 and Crisis Stability and Nuclear War in 1988.

Professor Kendall is survived by a brother, John, of Sharon. Funeral arrangements are pending. Letters of condolence may be sent to John Kendall, PO Box 521, Marian, MA 02738.

Related Topics

More MIT News