History of the JFI

The James Franck Institute is one of the longest standing interdisciplinary academic research centers in the world. The Institute was founded in 1945 as the Institute for the Study of Metals. It was one of three research institutes (the others being the Institute for Nuclear Studies, now the Enrico Fermi Institute, and the Institute of Radiobiology and Biophysics, later the Department of Biophysics) introduced by Chancellor Robert M. Hutchins to build on the University’s involvement in the Manhattan Project. The institute was renamed after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist James Franck in 1967 to enable a broader remit. Franck, who was Director of the Chemistry Division of the Metallurgical Laboratory during WWII, joined the University of Chicago in 1938 and was a member of the Department of Chemistry until his death in 1964.

At its outset, the Institute was composed of roughly equal numbers of metallurgists, physicists, and chemists. The Institute initially enjoyed substantial industrial support through the Industrial Sponsors Program, in addition to contracts from ONR and, a little later, AFOSR. Funding shifted almost exclusively to government contracts as the number of metallurgists declined over the first 15 years and the research focus gradually shifted from the properties of metals to solid-state physics and physical chemistry (including the liquid and gas phases). In particular, it became the prototype for the ARPA-funded Materials Research Laboratories (transferred to the NSF in 1972, now the MRSEC).

Research in the Institute was diverse from its start. Consistent with the name, initial research focused on the structure, defects, deformation, phase transformations, grain growth, surface phenomena, and (non-electronic) transport processes of metals (prominent scientists of this period included Cyril Smith, the first Director, Charles Barrett, and Clarence Zener). However, semi-conductors, superconductivity, ferromagnetism, and anti-ferromagnetism were also studied within the first years of the Institute. By the 1960s, superconductivity was a major focus (centered on Morrell Cohen), and there were significant efforts in fluids, amorphous solids, and AMO physics (in particular, from Ugo Fano). Another major focus of the 1960s and 1970s was chemical dynamics, including Yuan T. Lee’s and, subsequently, Don Levy’s work with molecular beams to study gas phase collisions; in the 1980s, Stuart Rice achieved direct quantum control of microscopic dynamics. In the same decade, following the recruitment of Leo Kadanoff in 1978 and Albert Libchaber in 1982, the JFI became the premiere place for studies of critical phenomena and nonlinear dynamics. A recurrent theme in these developments has been the synergy between theory and experiment. While research in the Institute has broadened over its history, the intellectual lines leading to all of today’s activities can be traced back to the first two decades of the Institute.

For more in-depth looks at the JFI’s history, read "The Institute for the Study of Metals: The First 15 Years” written by Ole K. Kleppa and published in JOM: The Journal of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society and “University of Chicago Research Institutes: 50 Years of Scientific Achievements.”

James Franck

James Franck (1882–1964) was a German physicist whose work paved the way for some of the most important research of the twentieth century. Franck’s research centered on collisions between atoms, the formation and disassociation of molecules, fluorescence, chemical processes, and photosynthesis. In 1925, Franck and collaborator Gustave Hertz, received the Nobel Prize for Physics for the first experimental evidence for the quantization of atomic energy levels, as suggested by Niels Bohr’s atomic theory. His studies also led to the Franck–Condon principle, which remains the basis for design and interpretation of many spectroscopic experiments today. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Franck was awarded the Max Planck Medal in 1953, and the Rumford Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1955. James Franck played a leading role in the Manhattan Project as the Director of the Chemistry Division of the Metallurgical Laboratory.

Franck’s early career was marked with distinction. He received his doctoral degree from the University of Berlin in 1906. Shortly after, he began to collaborate with physicist Gustav Hertz to demonstrate energy transfer from kinetic energy to light energy. In 1912, their ongoing collaboration resulted in the Franck–Hertz experiment, which demonstrated that atoms have discrete internal states. In 1926, Franck published a paper that established the vertical nature of the electronic-vibrational excitations of molecules. This feature of spectroscopic transitions, along with Edward U. Condon’s subsequent quantum mechanical formulation for the intensities of vibrational transitions between electronic states, became known as the Franck-Condon principle.

When Hitler’s regime came to power in 1933, it enacted the Law for Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which dismissed all Jews from university and civil service appointments. Franck was Jewish but was exempt from the racial exclusion law due to his war record. Even so, he resigned from his position as director of the Second Physical Institute of the University of Göttingen to protest the law, risking both his career and his personal safety. This marked the beginning of an uncertain time for Franck. He accepted a three-month appointment at Johns Hopkins University, followed by a year at the Niels Bohr Institute of Theoretical Physics in Denmark. In 1935, Franck returned to the United States once again, accepting an appointment at Johns Hopkins for three years.

In 1938, the University of Chicago welcomed James Franck as its Chairman of Physical Chemistry. Shortly after, the university built a laboratory dedicated to research of photosynthesis and appointed Franck its Director.

When the Second World War broke out, Franck joined the effort to beat Hitler to the production of nuclear weapons. Franck, realizing the heavy responsibility the Manhattan Project had to humankind, became the chairman of the Committee on Political and Social Problems. The committee created the Franck Report, a document that recommended restraint in regards to nuclear weapons and predicted an international arms race. Franck presented the report to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and the Interim Committee in June 1945. The Franck Report is a testament to Franck's integrity, conviction, and sense of scientific responsibility.

James Franck died of a heart attack on May 21,1964, during a visit to Göttingen. He was eighty-three.

To learn more about James Franck, read James Franck: A Biographical Memoir by Stuart A. Rice and Joshua Jortner.

To read the Franck Report, visit http://www.fas.org/sgp/eprint/franck.html

JFI Directors

  • Cyril S. Smith: 1945-57
  • Earl A. Long: 1957-60
  • Stuart A. Rice: 1961-68
  • Morrel H. Cohen: 1968-71
  • Ole J. Kleppa: 1968-77
  • Robert Gomer: 1977-83
  • Karl F. Freed: 1983-86
  • Gene F. Mazenko: 1986-92
  • David W. Oxtoby: 1992-95
  • Thomas F. Rosenbaum: 1995-01
  • Steven J. Sibener: 2001-07
  • Heinrich M. Jaeger: 2007-10
  • Paul B. Wiegmann: 2010-12
  • Aaron R. Dinner: 2012-18
  • Steven J. Sibener: 2018-21
  • Margaret L. Gardel: 2021-