A physicist, educator, author, soldier, and a dedicated humanitarian – these are just a few of the things that Dr. Karl Ferdinand Herzfeld is highly known for. He made notable contributions mostly in the fields of physics and chemistry. He also contributed ideas in philosophy and theology.
His love for physics led him to various in-depth studies, especially on kinetic theory, the three states of matter, ultrasonics, and thermodynamics.
He has been recognized by the academe and professional communities for his numerous awards and achievements that include the Mendel Medal given by Villanova University in 1931, the Sechi Medal awarded by Georgetown University in 1938, and the Cardinal Gibbons Medal given by The Catholic University of America in 1960.
Life, Education, and Career
Born in the city of Vienna, Austria on the 24th of February 1892, Dr. Herzfeld was raised by Dr. Charles August (physician and professor) and Camilla Herzfeld. His family was of Jewish descent.
As a child, he had the privilege to attend different prestigious schools that helped hone his skills and ideals. From 1902 to 1910, he studied in Schottes Gymnasium, a private institution that was managed by the Benedictines.
He then pursued his studies in several universities in Vienna. From 1910 to 1912, he studied physics and chemistry at the University of Vienna. He took several major subjects at the University of Zurich for a year, and spent another year at the University of Gottingen. He obtained his doctorate studies at the University of Vienna.
In the midst of the ongoing First World War, Dr. Herzfeld served in the Austrian Army as a First Lieutenant of Artillery and witnessed the exchange of bullets between the Italian and Russian Armies.
His passion for learning did not stop when the war broke out. After he gave his services to his country, Dr. Herzfeld returned to his academic career. From 1920 to 1926, he was a privatdozent (junior faculty member) and assistant professor at the University of Munich. In 1926, he accepted the appointment as a professor of physics at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1928 he coauthored a paper 1928 paper considering the role of molecular vibrations in the transfer of energy between ultrasonic waves and gas molecules.
He held the position at John Hopkins for 10 years until he accepted a respected post at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C as professor of physics and chairman of the physics department.
While working at the Catholic institution, Herzfeld became acquainted with his future bride and wife, Regina Flannery who was taking further studies on anthropology under the supervision of John Montgomery Cooper. After a short yet formal courtship, Herzfeld and Flannery tied the knot on June 9, 1938.
Three years after their marriage, Dr. Herzfeld, now a naturalized citizen, served in the United States Navy and became a consultant and scientist at the National Defense Research Committee. With his experiences on artillery in the Austrian Army, Herzfeld worked on improving the artillery shells inside the Naval Ordinance Laboratory. As he continued his services to the Navy, he created and headed the Committee on Mine Advisory which focused on the significant scientific concerns of mine warfare.
During the latter part of the 1940s, Herzfeld concentrated his efforts on quantum-mechanical calculations on the electronic structure of polyatomic molecules.
In 1959, the notable Dr. Herzfeld was promoted as the area editor for The New Catholic Encyclopedia, focusing on mathematics and physical sciences.
In 1961, he regained back his position as the Chairman of Physics at the Catholic University of America until he formally retired from educating and teaching in 1968. The following year after his retirement, Dr. Herzfeld was given the name Professor Emeritus. In retirement, he actively remained as a scholar and a dedicated professor.
During his long and distinguished career, he received international and prestigious recognitions for contributing significant studies on physics and chemistry. He also authored more than 130 scientific studies, researches, and articles and co-authored at least 14 books. One of the books he wrote was “Kinetische Theorie der Waerme” in 1925, a book that talks about kinetic theories.
With his numerous authored books and academic journals, he greatly contributed in the studies of matter states, ultrasonics, kinetics, and ballistics.
Dr. Herzfeld was affiliated with several groups. Because of his love for physics, he was a member of the Fellow American Physics Society and German Physics Society. He also joined the Washington Academy of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Acoustical Society of America, and the National Academy of Sciences. For his philosophical ideologies, he joined Washington Philosophical Society. Lastly, he became a member of different fraternities like Gamma Alpha, Sigma Xi, and Phi Beta Kappa.
Dr. Karl Herzfeld is not without his share of honorary awards and recognitions. He was not only given academic recognitions, but he was also a recipient of the highest civilian award of the US Navy which was the Meritorious Service Citation for his services rendered during the Second World War. The Secretary of War and the US Navy handed him a certificate of recognition for his exceptional services.
In 1964 and 1965, he was given the awards USN Meritorious Public Service and Papal Bene Merenti Medal respectively.
The list does not end there. The National Academy of Sciences inducted him in 1960. On his 80th birthday, the Catholic University of America awarded him another honorary medal for his significant contributions in science.
On June 3, 1978 and at the age of 86, Dr. Herzfeld passed away from a stroke. He was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery. He still remains to be one of the most respected contributors in physics and other fields of science.
Although he was more greatly known for his exemplary works in science, Dr. Herzfeld was also deeply fascinated with the teachings of philosophy and theology. He made scholarly and meaningful studies on the relationship between the wonders of science and ideologies of humanities.
Karl Herzfeld’s passion to do scientific studies did not only come from his own interest, but he also learned from those who studied under his supervision. As the professor who taught more than a hundred students, he was profoundly influenced by the idealism and spiritual aspects coming from his students.