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Elizabeth Armstrong Wood (1912-2006)

[Armstrong Wood]Following a very active life filled with many interests, Elizabeth A. Wood died March 23, 2006 of a stroke about a month after a pacemaker was installed. Born October 19, 1912 in New York City, she earned her BA at Barnard College and her MA and PhD in geology at Bryn Mawr College. Her growing enthusiasm for crystallography was encouraged by A. Lindo Patterson who was then in the Bryn Mawr Physics Dept. Betty became an instructor in geology at Bryn Mawr from 1934 to 1935 and again from 1937 to 1938. She was also an instructor in geology and mineralogy at Barnard from 1935 to 1937 and from 1938 to 1941, becoming a research assistant at Columbia U. before joining the Physical Research Dept. at Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) in 1942 where she was the first woman scientist. She maintained an active crystallographic research program for the next 24 years at BTL.

Her interests ranged from the growth of single crystals with useful semiconducting, lasing, magnetic or superconducting properties to the crystallographic investigation of new materials with unusual properties such as the exhibition of both ferromagnetism and piezoelectricity. She also worked on material phases that could be changed by the application of appropriately oriented electric fields and on the formation of new superconductors. The ability to walk down the corridor and consult with a world authority on almost any aspect of physics was a BTL hallmark; Betty was one whose advice was regularly sought by many of the most inventive minds at BTL including B.T. Matthias, W.L. Bond, R.M. Bozorth and L.H. Germer among others who are less well known to crystallographers.

As secretary of the American Society for X-Ray and Electron Diffraction (ASXRED) in 1947 Betty, together with William Parrish who was secretary of the Crystallographic Society of America (CSA), issued an invitation to the newly formed IUCr to hold their first Congress and General Assembly in the US at Harvard. She met with other officers of ASXRED and CSA during the Congress to explore the possibilities of a merged society. Their resulting proposals were accepted by both societies, but not without vigorous discussion as feelings on the plan ran surprisingly high. The following year she, Isadore Fankuchen, Bill Parrish and Lindo Patterson drafted a Constitution for the proposed American Crystallographic Association. In 1957, she became the first woman president of the ACA; the second, Isabella Karle, was not elected until 1976. 

She chaired the US delegation to the second IUCr General Assembly in 1957 and was a delegate to the tenth. She served on the Governing Board of AIP from 1963 to 1969, was on AIP’s Visiting Scientist in Physics program 1961-1972 and the Commission on College Physics 1967-1971, and was Associate Director of the NSF project Physical Science for Nonscience Students 1965-1971. She was also an Advisory Board member of the School of Mathematics Study Group 1966-1969 and a member of the IUCr Commission on Crystallographic Teaching 1969-1972. A Fellow of the American Physical Society, she was also a member of AAPT, AAAS, Sigma Xi and the NJ Science Teachers Association. She was awarded a D.Sc. (honoris causa) by Wheaton College in 1963, Western College, Ohio in 1965 and Worcester Polytechnic in 1970.

Her reputation for clearly written texts spread as a result of her Rewarding Careers for Women in Physics (1962) and Pressing Needs in School Sciences (1969) published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in 1962. It became wider still with the publication of her Crystal Orientation Manual in 1963, which expounded the art and science of preparing shaped pieces of large accurately oriented single crystals for technicians and her 1964 Crystals and Light: An Introduction to Optical Crystallography under the auspices of the Commission on College Physics, written for students with no previous knowledge of crystals or light. That same year, Experiments with Crystals and Light came out in the Bell System High School Series as both a booklet and a kit. Five years later, her Science for the Airplane Passenger was published and proved very successful, appearing for many years in airport bookstores throughout the US and other countries. Her deep interest in improving the scientific understanding of the general public was recognized by the ACA’s establishment of an Elizabeth A. Wood Science Writing Award. Its purpose is to honor the authors of outstanding publications that bring science to the attention of the general public. The first award was presented in 1997 to Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann.

Betty’s interests were not confined to science. For many years, she and her husband Sandy hybridized and raised the most beautiful irises in their large Murray Hill garden. She was elected president of the Garden State Iris Society and the Median Iris Society. She loved ocean sailing, putting her sailboat to regular use until a year or so ago. She was also a skilful thespian both as actor and playwright. Her other interests included recording numerous textbooks for the blind over many decades. Her warmth and outstanding presence will be sorely missed by her many friends.

Sidney Abrahams, ACA RefleXions, Number 2, Summer 2006
28 August 2008