Biography - Herman Russell Branson

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bransonThe Pauling-Branson Award recognizes the contributions of Herman Russell Branson, (1914-1995), one of the first African American physicists to make crystallography the focus of his research. Branson was born in Pocahontas, VA and received his BS from Virginia State College in 1936, and his PhD in physics in 1939 from the University of Cincinnati, under the direction of Boris Padowski. After a stint at Dillard University, he joined Howard University in 1941 as an assistant professor of physics and chemistry. He remained at Howard for 27 years, achieving increasingly important positions. He chaired the Department of Physics, directed a program in experimental science and mathematics, and worked on Office of Naval Research and Atomic Energy Commission projects in physics while at Howard University.

In 1948, Branson took a leave and spent time in Linus Pauling’s lab at Caltech. There he was assigned work on the structure of proteins; specifically he used his mathematical abilities to determine possible helical structures that would fit both the available x-ray data and a set of chemical restrictions outlined by Pauling. After some months Branson handed in a report narrowing the possible structures to two helices, a tighter coil Pauling termed alpha, and a looser helix called gamma.

Branson then returned to Howard to work on other projects but the work was ultimately published in a paper with Pauling and his assistant Robert Corey (Pauling, Corey and Branson (1951) PNAS, 37, 205-211). This was the only paper on the topic that included Branson as a co-author and he later felt that he did not receive enough credit for his contributions. At Howard Branson organized cross-disciplinary research teams of physicians, engineers, mathematicians, biologists, chemists, and physicists. After more than two decades of trailblazing research, he went on to serve as president at two historically black colleges, Central State University in Ohio (1968-1970) and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (1970-1985).

(Photograph by Scurlock Studio, Archives Center, National Museum of American History,
courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archvies, Physics Today Collection)