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Walter Massey, a Physicist With a Higher Calling

And unlike pop-culture portrayals of theoretical physicists — solitarily scribbling away on blackboards, enveloped in clouds of chalk dust — Dr. Massey likes working with people. In turn, people regard him highly enough to speak his name in the right rooms. He wraps up one project, and it isn’t long before another drops in his lap. He also has a tendency to inherit organizations in need of some direction — most recently the Giant Magellan, which faces financial turmoil.

Dr. Massey’s involvement with the telescope project came toward the end of a presidency at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During a board meeting for the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, Robert Zimmer, then the president of the University of Chicago, approached him about serving on the Giant Magellan’s board. One year later, Dr. Massey was elected chair.

But among all of his posts and accolades, one stands out, Dr. Massey said. In 1995, he assumed the presidency of his alma mater, Morehouse College, a historically Black men’s college in Atlanta and the site of Dr. King’s funeral. “Without Morehouse,” he said, “I just wouldn’t be who I am.”


Dr. Massey grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss., during the height of segregation. If you were Black, he recalled, you sat in the balcony at movies, rode buses in the back and slipped through the side entrances of stores — if you could shop there at all. And when a white person was on the sidewalk, you moved out of the way.

Desperate to leave, he was elated when, at 16, he won a scholarship to attend Morehouse. But he quickly realized that his classmates looked down on people from Mississippi. “And so I said, ‘I’ll show them,’” Dr. Massey said. “What’s the hardest course?” He chose physics because he felt he had something to prove.

Across a consortium of four colleges, he was the only student in his year studying physics. But he was never lonely. On the contrary, he loved getting lost in equations. Years later, in his memoir, Dr. Massey described a “total absorption that is as close to a meditative state as I have ever achieved.”

He rode that passion into a doctoral program at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied how liquid helium behaved near absolute zero degrees. In 1966, he earned his Ph.D., joining a cohort of more than a dozen Black physicists across the nation who had accomplished the same feat.

Soon after, Dr. Massey moved to Chicago to work at the nearby Argonne National Laboratory, studying the strange behavior of sound waves in superfluid helium, which seemed to defy the laws of physics. His work caught the attention of researchers at Urbana-Champaign as well as Anthony Leggett, a theorist at the University of Sussex in England whose understanding of helium would later win him a Nobel Prize in Physics.

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