Clifford Shull Biography

Clifford Glenwood Shull, a renowned U.S. physicist and Nobel Laureate, made significant contributions to the field of neutron scattering. Despite his desire to join the Manhattan Project, Shull spent the war years at the Beacon laboratory working on aviation fuels and lubricants. After the war, he joined the Clinton Laboratory, now known as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he developed a groundbreaking technique to study the molecular structure of materials using neutron scattering. This achievement earned him the Nobel Prize nearly fifty years later. Shull’s most fulfilling years, however, were spent at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he mentored young research students and conducted pioneering studies on neutron diffraction in magnetic materials.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Clifford Glenwood Shull
  • Died At Age: 85
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Martha-Nuel Summer
    • Father: David Shull
    • Mother: Daisy Shull
    • Children: John C. Shull, Robert D. Shull, William F. Shull
  • Physicists
  • American Men
  • Died on: March 31, 2001
  • Place of death: Medford, Massachusetts, United States
  • Notable Alumni: Carnegie Institute Of Technology
  • U.S. State: Pennsylvania
  • Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Physics
  • City: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • More Facts
  • Education: Carnegie Institute of Technology, New York University
  • Awards: Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize (1956), Gregori Aminoff Prize (1993), Nobel Prize in Physics (1994)

Childhood & Early Years

Clifford Glenwood Shull was born on September 23, 1915 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His parents, David and Daisy Shull, came to the city from Perry County of Central Pennsylvania. Here David opened a small business, which later evolved into a hardware store that also offered home repair services.

Clifford had two elder siblings, a sister named Evalyn May, and a brother named Perry Leo. In his Nobel Lecture, Clifford later said that he was the baby of the family and had a very happy childhood.

Clifford began his education in a grade school, located within a few blocks from his home. His junior school was also located within walking distance. However, he had to travel comparatively longer distance when he enrolled at Schenley High School for the last three years of his school education.

Although originally keen on aeronautical engineering he began to develop interest in physics under the influence of his physics master Paul Dysart. Therefore, after passing out in 1933, he enrolled at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now renamed Carnegie Mellon University), Pittsburg with physics as his major.

The institute offered two main advantages. As it was located in Pittsburg, he could commute from home and save some money. He also received half tuition scholarship because of his good academic records.

Equally important was the fact that the institution offered good curricula in physics. Under the influence of Harry Hower, the Head of the Physics Department, his interest in the subject increased manifold.

After graduating from college in 1937, Shull took a research and teaching post at New York University. His job involved laboratory course help and problem assignment grading. However, as his father had already passed away, the teaching helped him to survive in New York.

At the NY University, graduate students were encouraged to join ongoing projects at the department. Clifford joined a nuclear physics group headed by Frank Myers and Robert Huntoon.

Later he assisted Frank Myers and Richard Cox in building a new 400 keV Van de Graaff generator. Once it was built, they used it for repeating the electron-double-scattering (EDS) experiment. As part of the project, he had to collect data and analyze them. The experiment formed a part of his doctoral thesis.


In June 1941, Clifford Shull received his PhD degree from New York University and in July, he joined Texas Company’s research laboratory at Beacon, New York. At that time, the laboratory was trying to develop high-performance aviation fuels and lubricants.

As the USA joined Second World War in December, Shull wanted to join Manhattan Project, where scientists were working to create the atomic bomb. Since the work he was doing was equally important his company did not release him and he had to stay back.

Shull’s work at the Texas Company was interesting. It gave him the opportunity to broaden his knowledge base. Here he learned about crystallography, diffraction process etc. However, a visit to Clinton Laboratory (now Oak Ridge National Laboratory) in Tennessee drew his attention to the new developments in nuclear physics.

Shull joined Clinton Laboratory in 1946. Here he worked with Ernest Woolen, trying to find how technology developed during the war could now be used for the advancement of science. Together they worked for nine years exploring how neutrons produced by nuclear reactors could be used to probe atomic structure.

In 1955, Shull joined Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a faculty member. Here he was happy to guide graduate research students at the MITR-I research reactor. His group carried on a number of experiments using neutron radiation from the reactor.

He retired in 1986. He did some exceptional work in the field of internal magnetization in crystals, development of polarized beam technology, dynamical scattering in perfect crystals and fundamental properties of the neutron.

Major Works

Shull’s most significant research was undertaken while he was working at Clinton Laboratory under Ernest Woolen. Here, he developed a method by which the relative positions of the atoms in the material can easily be deduced. The invention later promoted further research into a wide variety of object such as superconductors and viruses.

He aimed a beam of single-wavelength neutrons, traveling at a specific velocity, at the material under observation. When the neutrons hit the atoms of the material they scattered in a specific pattern, which were recorded on photographic films. Later he analyzed the pattern and by doing so deduced the position of the atom.

Awards & Achievements

In 1994, Clifford Glenwood Shull received the Nobel Prize in Physics jointly with Bertram N. Brockhouse for the development of neutron diffraction technique. In his Nobel speech he acknowledged the contribution of Ernest Woolen. He believed that had Woolen not died early, he too have received the same honor.

Other than the Nobel Prize, Shull was also awarded the Oliver E. Buckley Prize by American Physical Society in 1956 and the Gregori Aminoff Prize by Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1993.

In addition, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1956 and to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975.

Personal Life & Legacy

Clifford Shull met Martha-Nuel Summer at New York while he was pursuing his PhD at New York University. They got married in 1941. The couple had three sons, John C. Shull, Robert D.Shull and William F. Shull.

Although he retired in 1986, he remained active for long and continued visiting his laboratory just to watch the students working there. He died on March 31, 2001, at Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Medford, Massachusetts at the age of eighty-five.

‘Shull Rocks’, located in Antarctica, has been named after Clifford Shull by the United Kingdom Antarctic Place-Names Committee. It is a chain of snow-covered rocks lying in Crystal Sound about 16 km northwest of Cape Rey, Graham Land.

‘The Clifford G. Shull Prize in Neutron Physics’ has been established in his honor by the Neutron Scattering Society of America.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory, earlier known as Clinton Laboratory, has established ‘Clifford G. Shull Fellowship’ in his honor.

Trivia: The ‘Glenwood’ in Clifford Glenwood Shull’s name comes from the Glenwood locality in Pittsburg, where he was born and brought up.

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