Peter Oliver Vandervoort, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago who kept alive the memory of the Manhattan Project and a generation of famous scientists, died on Dec. 11 at the age of 85.
Vandervoort was born in Detroit on April 25, 1935. His father joined the military shortly after he was born, and he grew up an Army brat, having attended 15 different schools by the time he was 15 years old, including a two-year spell in post-war Germany.
After his father’s failed stint as a car salesman in Minerva, Ohio, the family moved to Chicago. Vandervoort was set to attend South Shore High School, but an old math teacher from Minerva encouraged him to apply to the U. of C.’s early admissions program under then-President Robert Maynard Hutchins, which allowed students to attend the university at the age of 16.
Vandervoort got in, and completed his undergraduate degree at 19; in 1956, shortly after he turned 21, he also received a master’s degree in physics. “I had the ideal history,” he remarked later, in an interview with the Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF), about his schooling.
He noted that he would have “terrible arguments about the philosophy of education” with his future wife, Frances Sheridan (now Vandervoort), a student at the University of Michigan. “But I had the advantage. I had Robert Maynard Hutchins on my side.” (Frances would later transfer to the U. of C., and eventually become an editor at the Herald.)
While working as a research assistant at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico the summer after he finished his master’s degree, Vandervoort couldn’t decide whether to pursue a doctorate in astrophysics or particle physics. A friend told him to go ask for advice from Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a mathematician at the U. of C. who would later win the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on stellar evolution. (At the time, Vandervoort recalled, he was also “probably the only astrophysicist within several hundred miles.”)
To Vandervoort’s surprise, Chandrasekhar offered to take him on as a student. He completed his doctoral degree in 1960, and briefly worked at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Princeton University before becoming an assistant professor at the U. of C. in 1961.
With the exception of a one-year sojourn at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Vandervoort would spend the rest of his career at the University of Chicago. He served as associate chairman of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, as well as master of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division and associate dean of the Division of the Physical Sciences and of the College.
Through his education and his professorship, Vandervoort became well-acquainted with the veterans of the Manhattan Project, the government initiative to research and develop nuclear weapons during World War II. Alumni of the project at the U. of C. included Enrico Fermi, William Houlder Zachariasen, Samuel Allison and Maria Goeppert Mayer, the second woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, after Marie Curie.
Outside of his research on stellar dynamics and galactic evolution, Vandervoort became something of a historian of those physicists and the influence they and Hutchins had on the school. In his history interview with the AHF, he rattled off anecdotes. Though he didn’t know Fermi personally, for instance, he discovered that the Italian physicist would ask prospective graduate students to estimate the number of piano tuners in Chicago on their entrance exam.
“I think I was exposed to a culture that was very much a legacy of the (Metallurgical Laboratory) and the Manhattan Project,” he said. “We knew about the Manhattan Project. We lived in the shadow of the West Stands and we saw the plaque commemorating the Dec. 2, 1942 events. But it was somewhat rare that we knew about those connections.”
“He was our corporate memory, and he cared deeply about the department,” said Michael Turner, a professor in the astronomy and astrophysics department and Vandervoort’s longtime colleague. “He was dedicated to the College …. When he retired he wanted to teach one last time in the College. It was his only retirement request.”
Vandervoort also mentored a number of graduate and undergraduate students in the sciences. Ellen Gould Zweibel, now an astrophysicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, received an undergraduate degree from the U. of C. “I came to (the university) with a fervent interest in astronomy but no idea how to become an astronomer,” she said.
“Professor Vandervoort set me on a path into theoretical astrophysics that has been more rewarding than I could ever have imagined. He always challenged me to be better, he set expectations that were high but never daunting, and he encouraged me to find my own voice in science.”
In his interview with the AHF, which took place in 2016, Vandervoort reflected on the role of women in his discipline. “Women are still a minority on the faculty of our department, but we are now rather even-handed in our treatment of faculty appointments,” he said. “We’re finally getting it right. We still have a ways to go. We have a long way to go.”
In 1974, he was made a trustee of the Adler Planetarium; he received a life trusteeship in 2004. He retired from teaching in 1995, continuing with his research and leading the planning for the construction of the William Eckhardt Research Center. He and Frances, who were longtime Hyde Park residents, recently traveled to Patagonia, Siberia, the Bering Strait and Svalbard, Norway.
He is survived by Frances, two sons and a granddaughter.