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Helen T. Edwards

Helen T. Edwards

May 27, 1936 to June 21, 2016
Helen T. Edwards

Helen T. Edwards, 1936-2016

July 16, 2016 (PO47).  Helen T. Edwards, a distinguished particle accelerator physicist, was born in Detroit, Michigan, USA, on May 27, 1936, and passed away on June 21, 2016, at the age of 80.

After attending the Madeira prep school in McLean, VA, USA, Helen studied physics at Cornell University, where she earned successively her bachelor’s, M.S. and Ph.D. degrees.  After graduating in 1966, she remained for four more years at Cornell, where she was a Research Associate at the 10 GeV Electron Synchrotron, initially working under Robert Wilson.  In 1970 she joined him at the Fermi National Laboratory, where he was the first Director.  She was immediately appointed Associate Head of the Booster Group and later Head of the Accelerator Division (1987-89).

Edwards was best known for leadership in the design, construction, commissioning, and operation of the Tevatron, which for 25 years was the most powerful particle collider in the world. The Tevatron turned on in 1983 when it began delivering particle beams for Fermilab’s fixed-target experiments. It recorded its first proton-antiproton collisions in 1985 and was used to find the top quark in 1995 and the tau neutrino in 2000, two of the three fundamental particles discovered at Fermilab.  Today, Edwards is seen as one of the most vital contributors to the success of Fermilab over its five-decade history.  She was also deeply involved in the eventually abandoned project of the Superconducting Super Collider in Dallas, Texas (1989-92).  Although retired in 1992, she remained Guest Scientist at Fermilab until 2010.  In these years she made significant contributions to the development of high-gradient, superconducting linear accelerators as well as bright and intense electron sources.

The work on the Tevatron earned her the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the Genius Grant, in 1988, and the National Medal of Technology in 1989. She also received the Department of Energy’s E.O. Lawrence Award and the Robert R. Wilson Prize of the American Physical Society.  She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Science and the National Academy of Engineering. She was also a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

To all who knew her, Edwards was a force of nature. Her colleagues note her forward-thinking vision, her unrelenting determination to get things done and her penchant for coloring outside the lines when it came to solving problems.  She was also known for her astonishing intellect, working out complex scientific problems by relying almost entirely on her own knowledge, without having to resort to outside references.  The deep understanding of physics and her keen intuition was evident to everyone who knew her.

Edwards had a keen understanding of people and their strengths, with a knack for positioning them in roles where they would excel. She knew how to bring the right people together to carry out a project and how to encourage them to success.  In private life, she was a nature lover and is remembered as a very gentle and caring person.  Her kind nature extended to her friends and colleagues; she sincerely cared about people.

Compiled by SNF mostly from Fermilab News of June 27, 2016. For the full text of that online publication, see