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In Memoriam: John Marburger, 70

The physicist served as dean of USC Dornsife and was science adviser to former President George W. Bush.

John "Jack" Marburger III,  was appointed dean of USC Dornsife in 1976. After his time at USC, he served as science adviser to President George W. Bush for eight years. Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University.
John "Jack" Marburger III, was appointed dean of USC Dornsife in 1976. After his time at USC, he served as science adviser to President George W. Bush for eight years. Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University.

John H. Marburger III, former dean of USC Dornsife and science adviser to President George W. Bush, has died. He was 70.

Marburger died at his home in Port Jefferson, N.Y., on July 28, after a four-year bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“He was a scientist, an orientation that guided him throughout his life,” said Carol Marburger, the professor’s wife of 46 years. “He was thoughtful, observant, careful in his judgments, interested in everything and capable of deep love — for his family and friends, for music, for woodworking, for designing our home and garden, for history, for philosophy and always, always for physics.”

John, or Jack as he was known by friends, was influential as a professor, problem solver and leader.

He joined USC in 1966 as professor of physics and electrical engineering, and in 1972 became chair of the Department of Physics in USC Dornsife. By 1976, he was appointed dean of USC Dornsife, where he continued to contribute to the fields of nonlinear optics and quantum optics.

William Wagner, professor of physics and electrical engineering in USC Dornsife, recalled when Marburger’s deep interest in music led him to build a harpsichord, a stringed keyboard instrument.  Their 45-year friendship began in 1966 when they were welcomed to the university by Zohrab Kaprielian, dean of engineering and later USC’s vice president and provost, who died in 1981.  Marburger and Wagner shared an office in Olin Hall of Engineering until construction on Vivian Hall of Engineering was completed.

Marburger’s greatest contribution to USC was his full-scale revision of the general education program, Wagner said. 

“Zohrab Kaprielian and I always used to say that Jack would make a great president of USC,” Wagner said. “Instead he became a great president of Stony Brook University, followed by a great director of Brookhaven National Laboratory and then a great science adviser to the president of the United States and director of Congress’ Office of Science and Technology Policy.”

“Jack was the type of person anybody would want as a friend,” he said. “I was lucky to consider him such for 45 years.”

Marburger had other major accomplishments. In 1973, he co-founded the USC Center for Laser Studies. The center, housed in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, conducts a broad range of interdisciplinary basic and applied research projects in the field of quantum electronics, including optical properties in matter and laser research.


John Marburger (left), then dean of USC Dornsife, points out the features of a commercial laser to members of the USC Board of Trustees, including alumnus Montgomery Ross Fisher (right), during a 1977 meeting. Marburger co-founded the USC Center for Laser Studies in 1973.

With a research focus on the interaction of ultra-intense laser light with matter, he hosted a series of educational television programs called “Frontiers of Electronics” on CBS in 1971.

“Jack was part of a really terrific cohort of exceptional faculty in quantum electronics that I was lucky enough to encounter at USC,” said Martin Gundersen, professor of physics and astronomy in USC Dornsife and electrical engineering in USC Viterbi. “As is clear from his career, he had qualities that made people want to tap him for important positions.”

In 1980, Marburger headed to the East Coast to become the third president of Stony Brook University at age 39. As president, Marburger established the institution as a well-regarded center for scientific research.

In 1994, he retired from the presidency and returned to the faculty in the field of non-linear optics as a professor in Stony Brook’s departments of physics and electrical engineering.

Nearly four years later, he became director of Brookhaven Science Associates, a partnership between Stony Brook and the Battelle Memorial Institute that competed for and won the contract to operate Brookhaven National Laboratory. Under Marburger’s tenure, the laboratory commissioned the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, achieved ISO 14001 certification of its environmental management system and received heightened community support.

In 2001, immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, former President George W. Bush appointed the registered Democrat as his science adviser, and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director. In his post, Marburger launched major policy initiatives connected to the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. He also revamped the nation's space policy following the crash of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003. During his tenure, Marburger faced constant scrutiny from top scientists concerning the administration’s stance on science-related matters, specifically climate change and restricted federal funding of stem cell research.

During his eight-year appointment with the Bush administration — the longest presidential science post in U.S. history — Marburger helped develop the American Competitiveness Initiative. The policy provided an increase in funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Institute of Standard’s core programs and the National Science Foundation’s research and educational programs.

In a statement, Bush said Marburger was “respected and admired by all who were privileged to know him.”

In 2009, Marburger returned to Stony Brook University, where he taught for one year before becoming vice president for research in 2010 — a position he held until his retirement in July 2011.  

Marburger published extensively in the area of non-linear optics and quantum electrodynamics. He co-edited The Science of Science Policy: A Handbook (Stanford University Press, 2011) and authored Constructing Reality: Quantum Theory and Particle Physics (Cambridge University Press), a book for serious non-scientists who want to understand quantum mechanics and the Standard Model.  It will be published in September.

Marburger was born Feb. 8, 1941, on Staten Island, N.Y., to Virginia Smith and John H. Marburger Jr. He graduated from Princeton University in 1962 and received a doctorate in applied physics from Stanford University in 1967 where he met Carol on a blind date.

“He brought calm and rationality into complex, emotionally charged situations, guiding people toward a solution acceptable to all and beneficial to the institution,” Carol Marburger said.

In addition to his wife Carol, Marburger is survived by his son John and daughter-in-law Marianne D’Amato of Annandale, Va.; son Alexander and daughter-in-law Tracy Lampula of Jamaica Plain, Mass.; sister, Mary Hoffman-Habig, of Edgewater, Md., and a grandson.

A memorial service will be held at Stony Brook University on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011.

In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts in Marburger’s name may be directed to the John H. Marburger III Memorial Fund. The fund will support fellowships for women pursuing graduate study in the physical sciences, engineering or mathematics; fellowships for graduate students in music performance; and the Pollock/Krasner House. To make a donation, call (631) 632-6300.