Thomas Fulton, retired Johns Hopkins University professor, 83

Accomplished physicist documented meeting with Albert Einstein

  • Thomas Fulton
Thomas Fulton (Handout photo, Handout…)
April 17, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Thomas Fulton, a longtime physics professor at the Johns Hopkins University who swapped notes with the great minds of science, died of heart failure on April 8 at his daughter's home in Ruxton. He was 83.

Born Tamas Feuerzeug, in Budapest, Hungary, he immigrated to the United States with his family in 1941 at the age of 14. His immediate family fled Nazis in Hungary and Germany, where many of his other family members died in the Holocaust, and traveled to fascist Spain, where he secured three boat tickets to Cuba by borrowing $100 from a British consular official.

In 1941, his family sailed from Cuba to New York City, where Fulton was able to pay back the $100. Once here, he also changed his name to Thomas Fulton.

When his family arrived in New York, Dr. Fulton's parents entered him in the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, from which he graduated in January 1946 with honors in English and physics. He was accepted to Harvard College the same month.

Dr. Fulton's early accomplishments were inspired by his family's determination to have a better life, said a daughter, Judy Fulton of Baltimore. "He hadn't had an easy time with coming over, but he also worked hard, and he knew how to be persistent," she said.

But shortly after he began studying at Harvard, Dr. Fulton's college career was put on hold when he was drafted into the Army in March 1946. The disappointment turned out to be a stroke of luck, his daughter said. After he completed his military service from 1946 to 1947, the GI Bill of Rights paid for college.

In 1947, Dr. Fulton met Babette Pilzer. They married in 1952 and raised two daughters. His wife died in 2006.

Dr. Fulton graduated with high honors from Harvard, earning a bachelor's degree in physics in 1950. He went on to earn a doctorate in physics from Harvard University in 1954.

After completing his doctorate in 1954, Dr. Fulton spent two years at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, working under J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.

It was also at Princeton that Dr. Fulton had a private meeting with Albert Einstein shortly before Einstein died. According to an excerpt from Dr. Fulton's unpublished memoir, the one-hour meeting took place in the fall of 1954.

Dr. Fulton wrote that he took a chance requesting a meeting with Einstein, and to his surprise it was granted. He noted in his memoir how the sun from the windows in Einstein's office "lit up his unruly and very pure white hair, making it shine like a kind of halo," and how "his heavily accented voice was soft, gentle and kind."

"He looked and acted like a saint, and he was the genuine article, not an actor playing a saint," Dr. Fulton wrote of Einstein, who died about four months after their meeting. "He did not make me feel I was wasting his time, or that I was being importunate, even though he was obviously still engaged in research. His blackboard was covered with equations, connected with his long-running attempts to construct a unified field theory of gravitation and electromagnetism."

In 1956, Dr. Fulton moved his family to Baltimore's Mount Washington neighborhood and joined the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University as a professor of physics. He retired in 2000.

"In the Physics Department, Dr. Fulton mentored numerous graduate students, most of whom now are on the faculty of leading universities or senior researchers in industry," according to a statement released by members of the physics department.

During his time at Hopkins, Dr. Fulton became the "founding father" of the particle theory group who launched research in the high-energy domain of physics.

At home, Dr. Fulton was a "renaissance man," his daughter said. "Whatever he did, he did brilliantly.

"I remember as a child traveling with him, and he just knew so much about everything," she added.

Dr. Fulton enjoyed classical music, opera and art. He also enjoyed photography and produced artistic shots of dark French Gothic churches and the panoramas of the mountains. He enjoyed politics, spoke several languages and traveled extensively. He embraced Baltimore culture, taking his family on crabbing trips in a rowboat in the Chesapeake Bay.

Dr. Fulton treated his family to winter ski trips and skied until he was 77. He also enjoyed mountain and rock climbing, as well as biking. On a trip with his granddaughters, he climbed so well that passers-by thought he was teaching a formal class and asked to join, his family said.

While he possessed a brilliant mind, his daughter said, Dr. Fulton's trademark was his ability to connect with anyone about their interests.

"He was a teacher, not just professionally, but by personality," she said. "He would communicate his knowledge, but interacted with each person, whether it was family or friends or colleagues, on the level that worked for them, in a really fascinating way."

Plans for a memorial gathering are incomplete.

He is survived by another daughter, Ruth Kiselewich of Baltimore, and four grandchildren.

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