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Edward Bilpuch, former director of TUNL, dead at 85

Most physicists know Edward Bilpuch as one of the founding fathers of the Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory.

Edward Bilpuch, a retired Duke University physics professor, died Sept. 16. Image courtesy of Calvin Howell, Duke.

Edward Bilpuch, a retired Duke University physics professor, died of a heart attack on Sunday, Sept. 16. He was 85.

Bilpuch studied the structure of the atomic nucleus and was internationally recognized for his contributions to high-resolution nuclear spectroscopy. He also helped the physics departments at Duke, UNC and NC State to collaborate on developing the Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory (TUNL), which is now a U.S. Department of Energy Center of Excellence in nuclear physics.  The TUNL consortium operates three particle accelerator facilities on Duke's campus for basic and applied nuclear physics research.

"Professor Bilpuch was instrumental in building TUNL from a regional university laboratory into a lab with worldwide reputation," said Haiyan Gao, the current chair of the physics department at Duke.

Bilpuch was born in Connellsville, Pa. and came to North Carolina after two years in the Navy. He enrolled at UNC on a football scholarship and earned his B.S. in physics in 1950. He stayed with the Tar heels as a graduate student in physics and was part of the first class of Morehead Fellows, but he did his thesis research in experimental nuclear physics under the supervision of the late Duke physics professor Henry Newson. 

Newson was the first to propose the idea for TUNL. At the time, just after World War II, Triangle-based nuclear physicists were working independently at the three research universities in the area to understand the internal workings of the atom. But independently the universities did not have large enough faculties to develop the research programs or facilities they needed to probe deeper into the atomic nucleus. Newson thought that a single, coordinated group of nuclear physicists from the three major universities in the Research Triangle would boost the scientists' ability to compete for funding for early particle accelerators and other expensive equipment they needed.

Physicists in the area, and the Atomic Energy Agency, embraced the idea. So did Bilpuch. He earned his Ph.D. from UNC in 1956 and joined Duke, first as a research associate and then, in 1962, as an assistant professor. He became deputy director of TUNL, under Newson, in 1966, and then director of TUNL in 1978.

"Dr. Bilpuch understood deeply the connection between technology and scientific exploration, and as director, he created an environment at TUNL that encouraged scientific creativity and technical innovation," said Calvin Howell, a Duke physics professor and current director of TUNL.

During Bilpuch's time as director, he also began major collaborations with Chinese physicists and students. He was among the first Duke faculty to make connections with scientists in China, according to Gao. "I think building stronger collaborations with colleagues worldwide is one important aspect (of TUNL's reputation)," she said, adding that she already knew of the regional lab as an undergraduate studying in China in the mid-1980s. Gao said the cutting-edge research and Bilpuch's friendship with the late Madame Xide Xie helped to cultivate the lab's international reputation.

Until his retirement from Duke and TUNL in 1992, Bilpuch cared for the lab deeply and "worked tirelessly to make it an excellent place to do research," said Berndt Mueller, a theoretical nuclear physicist at Duke. "He was really dedicated to his colleagues and students, and he went out his way to help them to be successful," he said, adding that Bilpuch's warm personality and unwavering support was a big part of his decision to come to Duke.

Bilpuch was admitted to Duke University Medical Center on Friday, Sept. 14 with a broken hip. Apparently, heart problems prevented immediate surgery, and he suffered a heart attack early in the morning of Sept. 16. He is survived by his wife, Marilyn.

Visitation will be from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20 at the Howerton and Bryan Funeral Home at 1005 West Main Street in Durham. A funeral service will be at 3:00 p.m. on Friday, September 21, at the Duke University Divinity School in the Goodson Chapel.