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Hilbert J. Unger ’28

A picture of Hilbert and Calista Unger

Hilbert and Callista Unger

Hilbert John Unger ’28, February 2002, in Maryland. Hilbert graduated with a degree in physics from Reed, in great praise for his college experience, especially with A.A. Knowlton [physics 1915–48], and went on to the University of Oregon as a graduate assistant. His studies in infrared spectroscopy led to a master’s degree in biological and physical sciences in 1930. For his work in physics, he was also awarded the first doctorate in the department in 1932. Continuing at the university on research grants, he took education courses that would enable him to teach physics and math at the University of Idaho–Pocatello (Idaho State University) from 1935 to 1938. During the next four years, Hilbert was engaged in the research division of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing as an infrared spectroscopist in what was then classified work against counterfeiting. In 1942, he began his career with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, developing and monitoring the production of a radio proximity fuse for anti-aircraft and field artillery shells. Under sponsorship of the U.S. Navy at the end of the war, the laboratory developed the Terrier and Talos guided missiles with Unger on fuse research. He also studied the development of microcircuits for navigational satellites. In 1956, he transferred to the research center of the laboratory and returned to infrared research, developing a rapidly scanning infrared spectrometer for monitoring fuel temperature in rocket motors. He published articles in a variety of publications and in classified papers from 1930 until 1972, when he retired. In 1935, Hilbert married Callista de la Fontaine and they had a son and daughter. In retirement he was actively involved in community, church, and civic volunteer service, including serving on the board of the Montgomery County (Maryland) United Way, and as secretary of the central council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. He taught English to those seeking high school equivalency and for whom English was a second language, and volunteered for an emergency assistance project. He also repaired clocks and electronics, and did carpentry. Hilbert and his wife traveled to Europe and Russia in 1972–73, and moved into a retirement facility in 1996. In 1998, he celebrated his 92nd birthday, and his wife’s centennial birthday. Reflecting on his research during World War II, Hilbert once stated, "We could see directly how our work helped end battles sooner and saved lives. Today there are enough atomic bombs to singe the entire world. It’s harder to know how to be of help."

Appeared in Reed magazine: May 2004

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