John Stearns Thomsen dies at 88

Johns Hopkins physicist and researcher was the founding president of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum

April 30, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

John Stearns Thomsen, a retired Johns Hopkins University physicist who was a founder of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, died of respiratory failure Wednesday at his North Roland Park home. He was 88.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Mount Royal Terrace in Reservoir Hill, he was a 1939 Boys' Latin School graduate. A year later, he joined the National Railway Historical Society and remained a train and streetcar aficionado throughout his life.

He earned a bachelor's degree in engineering from Hopkins. During the latter part of World War II, from 1943 to 1945, he worked as an electrical engineer at the General Electric Co. in Schenectady, N.Y. He then returned to Hopkins, where he earned a doctorate in physics in 1952.

Dr. Thomsen worked as a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Radiation Laboratory from 1951 to 1953, and then was an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., from 1953 to 1954.

He spent the rest of his physics career at the Hopkins Homewood campus. He was an assistant professor from 1955 to 1961, a research physicist from 1962 to 1969, and held the title of "fellow by courtesy" from 1970 until his death. He wrote scholarly articles on X-ray spectroscopy and thermodynamics.

Family members said Dr. Thomsen was active in politics and the community. He held numerous positions in the Republican Party in the city and state, and ran for local office a number of times, including seeking the Republican nomination for mayor of Baltimore in 1975. He also served on the Baltimore City Community Relations Commission, which is charged with enforcing the city's anti-discrimination law, as a member from 1965 to 1973 and as chairman from 1973 to 1975.

"He held that post during the 1968 riots, a troubling time," said his wife, the former Helen Steuart.

About that time, Dr. Thomsen became a founder of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. He was its president from 1966 to 1970 and its executive vice president until 1976. Friends said he worked closely with two prominent fellow Republicans, Samuel Hopkins and Theodore R. McKeldin, to secure a permanent home for the collection of streetcars after the old Baltimore Transit Co. converted to bus operation.

"This quiet, scholarly man became president of the Baltimore Street Car Museum at a critical time in the organization's history," said James A. Genthner, a museum member and Timonium resident.

During his tenure, the museum moved from Lake Roland to city-owned land on Falls Road near Pennsylvania Station.

"He was the principal founder and first president of the streetcar museum," said James Dalmas, a Jarrettsville resident who succeeded him as president. "Without John Thomsen, there would probably not be a streetcar museum as we know it today. He had an exceptional mind and an incredible insight in how to organize an institution. John was the secret ingredient."

Mr. Dalmas said the museum founder "was not flashy, but he had an objective and wanted to get it done."

He credited Dr. Thomsen with writing the museum's bylaws and keeping the young, all-volunteer organization working efficiently.

"He did a very effective job as president," said museum member Martin K. Van Horn of Towson.

Dr. Thomsen was also the 1966 president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and remained active in the organization. His writings in this area included a chapter on railways in the bicentennial history of Sullivan, Maine, where he spent summers for much of his life.

Dr. Thomsen also helped produce and wrote the introduction for the 1973 history of Baltimore's streetcar, "Who Made All Our Streetcars Go?"

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. David's Episcopal Church, 4700 Roland Ave., where he was a longtime member, vestryman and chairman of the revolving fund.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years; two sons, Steuart Thomsen of Chevy Chase and J. Marshall Thomsen of Dexter, Mich.; two daughters, Mary Davisson of Baltimore and Alice Bockman of Torrance, Calif.; and nine grandchildren.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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