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Physics prof inspired generations of students.

Prof. Jean Frederic Delord

A picture of Jean Delord

Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Jean Frederic Delord, an emeritus professor of physics who inspired generations of Reed students, died in October 2002 at age 82, following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He came to Reed in 1950, was named the first A.A. Knowlton Chair in physics in 1981, and retired in 1988, 38 years after his first class. The faculty resolution in memoriam states: “He contributed enormously to the character and development of the Reed College physics department throughout the second half of the 20th century. Above all he was a good and decent person—a mentor and a cherished friend of everyone lucky enough to know him.”

Delord approached teaching with personal warmth and humor, staying vigilant to student needs while also pushing them to achieve more. He created a natural science course when students wanted an environmental science class, and one of his first Reed endeavors was to create a fourth-year course, which, as the resolution states, “was ambitious beyond all precedent, either at Reed or . . . at any liberal arts institution.” His teaching focused on solid state, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics; at one time or another he taught each of the department’s major courses. He developed a lab to conduct research on semi-conductor surfaces and was always able to quickly recognize why any physics laboratory was not working as expected. He was honored by serving as a Fulbright lecturer at the College de France in Paris and a visiting scholar at the University of Washington. After retiring, Delord remained highly dedicated to the college and interested in scientific endeavors, attending his last Reed physics seminar just two weeks before his death. The faculty resolution noted that, “When, upon returning home, he was asked how it went, he—his exceptional critical instinct still unimpaired—responded: ‘Not a very good talk.’”

Delord was born in France and received his first degree, in electrical engineering, from the University of Toulouse. That same year he was imprisoned for printing anti-Nazi tracts. He was moved to a work camp, managed to escape in 1943, and continued to operate in the French resistance, specializing in forged documents and helping many to escape into Spain. With the end of the war he went back to school and received a Licence ès Sciences from the University of Paris in 1947. He attended the University of Kansas on an exchange fellowship and earned a PhD in 1951. Reed professor A.A. Knowlton [physics 1915–48] personally recruited Delord, and soon after Delord moved to Portland with his wife, Natalie Nelson, of Newton, Kansas.

Delord worked summers with Howard Vollum ’36 at his company, Tektronix, which revolutionized oscilloscope design. He worked for the company on and off for a dozen years, teaching part time or taking leaves of absence from Reed, and served as the director of physics research for the company from 1959 to 1964. Delord honored his friendship with Vollum through the conception and creation of the Howard Vollum Award in 1975, which annually celebrates and recognizes the exceptional achievement of a member of the Pacific Northwest’s scientific and technical community.

Outside of physics, Delord’s interests ranged widely. He and his wife were active within the Portland art community, and Delord himself was an accomplished woodworker, building furniture in a basement woodshop. He also enjoyed gardening, sailing, swimming, and mountain climbing; as Parkinson’s set in, he took up beekeeping. Delord was vocal and active in the community throughout his life, often writing letters to the editor of the Oregonian and to congressmen, and, as Robert Reynolds, David W. Brauer Professor Emeritus of Physics [1963–2002], remembers, “When Mr. Nixon decided to bomb Cambodia, Delord helped us all understand immediately how outrageous the action was by canceling his classes.”

“Jean was a gentle man; a man of principle who did not strut his principles,” the resolution states, “a man of conviction who was not afraid to speak out for what he thought was right, but who managed to do so without alienating others.” And as Reynolds says, “He was an exemplary citizen of the world, of Reed, and of physics.” 

Appeared in Reed magazine: February 2003: "News of the College"

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