A Tribute to Dr. Elmer Nussbaum
Dr. Joseph Brain ‘61
Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology at Harvard University
Every college student should have the opportunity to be mentored by someone like Elmer Nussbaum. A quiet, unassuming man, he awakened in me a passion for discovery and teaching – his vision still guides me after nearly 50 years.
I came to Taylor with a vague desire to study science or engineering; beyond that, there were no specific goals. One instinct served me well: I always sought out the most talented faculty. That quest led me to Elmer Nussbaum, whose physics laboratory research and gentle suggestions shaped my life and career.
After my sophomore year, I spent the summer of 1959 working in Dr. Nussbaum’s lab. It was a memorable summer. It was then that I learned what it meant to develop a hypothesis, craft an experimental design, test it, and finally to collect and interpret reliable data. The values and habits I learned that summer from Dr. Nussbaum are still in my tool set.
In retrospect, that summer and the following two summers of research were critical as I applied for fellowships for graduate work and applied to universities with strong programs in nuclear physics. I will forever be grateful to him for his interest in me and his catalytic role in getting me started on a career at Harvard which has lasted 46 years and continues to be challenging and completely enjoyable.
It was also Dr. Nussbaum who introduced me to the pleasures of teaching. He loved to set up labs and created excitement and discovery with very limited resources. In my senior year, he invited me to give all the lectures for Physical Science Survey; Dr. Nussbaum did the labs and I gave all the lectures. I was paid $300 for the entire semester. It seemed like a lot of money at the time and the fact that I could do something that I enjoyed and get paid for it convinced me that I wanted to be a college professor – like Dr. Nussbaum.
Elmer persists in my mind as a paradox: I remember him as a thorough workaholic; it was not unusual to visit his office or lab during evenings and weekends and find him there. Still, he was a committed husband and father and always had time for his wife, his children, his church and the Upland Lion’s club.
When he moved to a retirement home in Indianapolis, his level of activity seemed undiminished. His cluttered room reflected his busy mind and he continued to be interested in everything from science and religion to the stock market. During our visits, I remember seeing Science Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and a Bible on his bedside table.
Dr. Nussbaum had a profound impact on my life and the lives of many of his scientific children. I know that others have similar stories. His influence will live on for generations to come. It was Dr. Nussbaum who introduced me to the thrill of scientific discovery and awakened in me that desire to share it with others. For that, I will be eternally grateful.