Fred C. Allison (1882-1974) is best known for his research on the effect of applied magnetic fields on the propagation of light through different substances (magneto-optics) and the related technique he developed for identifying chemical elements, which became known as the Allison Method or Allison Effect. This research brought him fame in the 1930s for identifying two elements of the periodic table: alabamine (now astatine) and virginium (now francium). By the late 1930s, the Allison Effect became the focus of a major scientific controversy when other researchers were not able to reproduce Allison’s results. He founded Auburn University‘s Department of Physics, where he taught from 1922 to 1952 and pursued an active research agenda until his death.
Fred Allison at Alabama Polytechnic Institute Allison was born on July 4, 1882, in Glade Spring, Virginia. He studied classics and mathematics at Emory and Henry College in Emory, Virginia, from 1889 to 1904, graduating with honors. He remained for two years at the college as an instructor of algebra, history, and English. During that time, he married one of his students, Elizabeth Harriet Kelly, a descendant of the college’s founder. In 1906, the college president, R. G. Waterhouse, proposed to Allison that he attend Johns Hopkins University for an advanced degree in science and simultaneously start a physics department at Emory and Henry. In 1907, Allison enrolled at Hopkins, and for the next 13 years, he spent one year working on his degree at Hopkins and the next year at Emory and Henry teaching science.
Allison’s decision to focus his studies on optics was influenced by the work of Henry A. Rowland, the first physics professor at Hopkins and a noted early leader in spectroscopy, the science of using the absorption and emission of light at different wavelengths to study the properties of matter. Rowland died in 1901, but his Rowland diffraction grating, a precision device for measuring certain properties of light, became the foundation of physical, chemical, and astronomical spectroscopic instruments around the world and was important to Allison’s future. In his early years as a graduate student, Allison mastered the use of Rowland’s device and developed skills in building and using sensitive scientific instruments that would shape his research career.
Allison spent the summer term of 1909 at the University of Chicago working with A. A. Michelson and R. A. Millikan, two of America’s most prominent physicists. With Michelson, he studied optics and learned to use the senior physicist’s interferometer, an instrument for precision measurements of the wavelength of light. This experience would be significant in Allison’s development of his magneto-optic method of chemical analysis. He also worked with Millikan on heat and thermodynamics and was cited in Millikan’s article on the famous oil-drop experiment that gave a measurement of the quantized charge of the electron.
In 1920, Allison left both the Johns Hopkins University and Emory and Henry College to move to the University of Virginia, where he completed his Ph.D. In his dissertation research, he used the interferometric technique to develop a method for measuring the ranges of wavelengths, or spectra, in visible light emitted by stars, which was of interest to chemists and physicists as well as astronomers. The analysis of stellar light spectra enabled astronomers to determine the chemical composition and temperature of a star, as well as its relative velocity with respect to the Earth.
Allison completed his Ph.D. in 1922 and was hired by the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API, now Auburn University) to create a department of physics. He began extensive work on his magneto-optic technique when he returned to the University of Virginia for the summer term of 1929. With a new device, he measured the extremely short time delay in the onset of changes in the optical properties of chemical elements that resulted from the rapid application of a strong magnetic field to samples of these elements. Allison conjectured that the duration of the time delay was characteristic of the specific atomic elements in the sample of material being tested. If true, the measurement of the time delay could be used to determine the presence of any element in a sample. Such a technique would have proven to be a revolutionary tool to not only determine the composition of elements in a sample but also to identify elements in the periodic table that had not been heretofore identified in nature. The weakness of his technique was that Allison made his measurements of time delays from observations of weak and sudden changes in light intensity by eye rather than with the use of an optical detector. This introduced a subjective character to the measurement, and it was this requirement that would cast doubt on the validity of the technique and the results he allegedly obtained with it, and ultimately caused his work on this topic to lapse into obscurity.
American Chemical Society Journal, 1934 In 1930, Allison published an article on his technique, and the next few years saw a rapid rise in his reputation in the scientific community. He received considerable attention with the 1931 announcement of his discovery of two new atomic elements, which he named alabamine and virginium. The news was repeated widely in publications ranging from the American Chemical Society Journal to Time magazine. That same year, he made an unexpected observation that led him close to demonstrating the existence of deuterium, the naturally occurring but rare heavy isotope of hydrogen. His work presaged Harold Urey’s definitive identification of the isotope, for which he received the 1934 Nobel Prize in chemistry, but Allison is typically not credited for contributing to the discovery. Allison’s published work on the magneto-optic effect led to the controversy that would follow him for the rest of his career. His most ardent critic was Francis Slack of Vanderbilt University, who, like many others, was fascinated by Allison’s work. In 1930-31, Slack built his own magneto-optical device, but he and his graduate students were unable to replicate Allison’s work. After several years of trying, Slack and the Vanderbilt team determined that the technique could not produce valid results independent of the particular observer. They issued an extremely strong criticism that Allison’s results were subjective. Allison’s method continued to be used successfully by some scientists, but others found it impossible to obtain clear results with the technique. In this way, what became known as the Allison Effect entered the disreputable “grey area of science” known as “pathological” science, which purports the existence of scientific laws abstracted from the observations of alleged effects at the bounds of detectability using a subjective means of determination.
Though best known for the Allison Effect and the controversy that surrounded it, Fred Allison was highly effective beyond his role as laboratory physicist. He created and provided leadership for the department of physics at API for 31 years. He also served as dean of the Graduate School of API for four years, during which time he helped to develop the first Ph.D. programs at the university. When he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, he returned to his alma mater, Emory and Henry College, and chaired the science division for three years. From 1956-1968, he taught physics at Huntingdon College in Montgomery.
Allison was also civic-minded: he was a founding member of Auburn’s Rotary Club and served as president of the Alabama Academy of Science. He also helped found the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, an organization that supported the effort to transfer nuclear research from military to peace-time use after World War II. His letters reveal a man who cared as deeply about the people around him as he did his scholarship. When he finally retired permanently from teaching in 1969, he returned to his passion for research in a laboratory at Auburn University, where he continued his magneto-optic work until one month before his death on August 2, 1974, at the age of 92. Auburn University named the facility that houses its physics department the Allison Laboratory in his honor.
“Alabamine and Virginium.” Time, February 15, 1932.
Porter, Richard Euin. “Fred Allison, Magneto-Optics, and the Gray Area of Science.” Masters thesis, History Dept, Auburn University, 1994.