A visionary 20th century physicist, John Archibald Wheeler helped invent the theory of nuclear fission, gave black holes their name, and argued about the nature of reality with the likes of Albert Einstein. Wheeler, who was the son of librarians, first became interested in science as a boy reading scientific articles. After earning his doctorate in physics in the 1930s, he journeyed to Copenhagen to study with the legendary physicist Niels Bohr. This collaboration culminated in a series of papers that explained the mechanism of nuclear fission in terms of quantum physics. This pioneering work led to Wheeler being one of the principle scientific figures behind the Manhattan Project. After WWII, he continued working at Princeton University, where he served as a professor of physics from 1938-1976, teaching thousands of undergraduate students and mentoring more than 50 PhD students. His extensive achievements also include helping the U.S. government design and build the hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s. Over a long, productive scientific life, he received numerous honors, including the National Medal of Science, the Albert Einstein Prize, the Franklin Medal, the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal, and the Wolf Foundation Prize. He was also a past president of the American Physical Society and received honorary degrees from 18 institutions.
Something of a wunderkind, Wheeler was only 16 years old when he entered Johns Hopkins University in 1927. Since his family was already living in Baltimore, Maryland, he was able to save money by living at home while he attended classes at Hopkins. Nonetheless, he was always in need of financial support. So during his student years, he did some private tutoring and served as an assistant in campus laboratories. Academically, he excelled. After his third year at Hopkins, in the summer of 1930, he secured a summer job at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington D.C., working with noted spectroscopist William F. Meggers. This experience led to Wheeler publishing his first scientific paper when he was only 19. Later, his dissertation research work, carried out under the supervision of Karl Herzfeld, focused on the theory of the dispersion and absorption of helium. In 1933, after only 6 years at Hopkins, Wheeler earned his PhD in physics. At the time, he was just shy of 22 years old.
Wheeler remained attached to his alma mater in many ways. In 1938, he nearly accepted a position as associate professor at Hopkins, only to choose Princeton University at the last second. Today, many of his writings and photographs can be found among the university library’s special graphic and pictorial collection. Additionally, his groundbreaking work in physics was recognized by his alma mater in 1977. During that year's graduation ceremonies, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate to add to his previous degree, thus establishing Wheeler as one of its most remarkable graduates.