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Martin Deutsch

Professor Emeritus of Physics Martin Deutsch ’37, a pioneer in particle physics who fled encroaching fascism in Austria and worked on the Manhattan Project, died Aug. 16 at the age of 85.

The cause of death has not been determined, but he had recently suffered from heart problems.

Deutsch’s most remarkable accomplishment was the discovery of positronium, a hydrogen-like atom without a nucleus, in 1951. He was only 34 years old at the time.

The particle’s properties agreed with the quantum theory of electrodynamics for a two-particle system. Deutsch discovered two forms of positronium; the first decays by annihilation into two equal photons, while the second annihilates into three photons.

“It was a spectacular production on Martin’s part,” said Institute Professor Emeritus Francis E. Low, a colleague of Deutsch’s on the positronium experiments. “Martin was a remarkably knowledgeable man, a firehose of information in the MIT tradition.

Deutsch fled to Switzerland, U.S.

Born to a Jewish family in Vienna in 1917, Deutsch fled in 1934 after resisting the growing fascist movement in Austria. The following year, he and his mother traveled to the U.S., settling in Cambridge.

When he enrolled at MIT, Deutsch was granted permission to get a bachelor’s degree in two years, and he earned his PhD in only four more. Among his peers at MIT in the late 1930s was Richard P. Feynman ’39, the 1965 Nobel Laureate in physics. Feynman’s prize-winning work in quantum electrodynamics was greatly advanced by Deutsch’s discovery of positronium 14 years earlier.

WWII brought investigation

When Germany annexed Austria in 1941, Deutsch became a German subject and thus an “enemy alien.” For two years, he taught and researched at MIT while undergoing a security investigation to get clearance to work on the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M. There he worked with such physics legends as Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and Robert Oppenheimer.

After the war, Deutsch helped lead the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, where his students included Henry W. Kendall PhD ’55, who won the Nobel Prize in 1990 for his co-discovery of the quark.

Deutsch is survived by his wife and two sons. A memorial service will be announced.