William V. Houston

For other people named William Houston, see William Houston (disambiguation).
William V. Houston

1963 in Copenhagen
Born (1900-01-19)January 19, 1900
Mount Gilead, Ohio, U.S.
Died August 22, 1968(1968-08-22) (aged 68)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Nationality American
Fields Physics
Alma mater Ohio State University
Notable awards Rice University Medal of Honor - 1962

William Vermillion Houston (January 19, 1900 August 22, 1968) was an American physicist who made contributions to spectroscopy, quantum mechanics, and solid-state physics as well as being a teacher and administrator. He became the second president of Rice University in 1946.

His family name is pronounced HOW-stun, in contrast to the pronunciation of the city of Houston in which he lived for much of his career.


Houston began his college education in 1916 at Ohio State University (OSU) where he earned his baccalaureate degree in physics. He served in the military during 1918 and 1919. After teaching physics at the University of Dubuque for one year, he entered graduate studies at the University of Chicago and studied under Albert A. Michelson, who had won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907, and Robert Millikan who would win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1923 for his measurement of the charge on the electron and for his work on the photoelectric effect. It was at this time that Houston began his experimental work on the fine structure of hydrogen. In 1922, he returned to Ohio State, where he was an instructor in physics and studied spectroscopy under A. D. Cole. Houston was granted his Ph.D. in 1925, after which he went to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) on a National Research Fellowship, largely because Millikan had left Chicago for Caltech in 1922. At Caltech Houston continued his work in spectroscopy and making improvements in Fabry–Pérot interferometry. At Caltech, he taught a spectroscopy course out of Atombau und Spektrallinien, which became the “bible”[1] of atomic theory for the new generation of physicists who developed atomic and quantum physics. In 1927 and 1928, Houston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he used to go to Germany to do postgraduate study with Arnold Sommerfeld at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich and Werner Heisenberg at the University of Leipzig. Also studying with Sommerfeld concurrently with Houston were Carl Eckart, Edwin C. Kemble, and Rudolf Peierls. At that time, the winter semester of 1927,[2] Sommerfeld, in his special lectures, treated the theory of electrons in metals for the first time. As a course of study, Sommerfeld suggested to Houston that he investigate the mean free path of electrons and its relationship to resistance in metals as a function of temperature. Sommerfeld showed Houston the proof of a paper soon be published on the subject of Fermi statistics applied to phenomena in metals. Houston’s work on the subject was published in a paper coauthored with Sommerfeld and Eckart.[3] After spending the winter semester of 1927 with Sommerfeld, Houston went to spend the spring semester of 1928 with Heisenberg in Leipzig. There, he studied the spin-orbit interaction in two-electron spectra. Houston was able to show the transition from Russell-Saunders coupling to jj-coupling in two-electron systems and its influence on the Zeeman effect. It was at this time that Houston formed a professional and personal friendship with Felix Bloch, who did pioneering work on the motion of electrons in periodic structures.[4][5][6][7]


After his study and research in Germany, Houston returned to Caltech and served as an assistant professor (1927–1929), associate professor (1929–1931), and professor (1931–1946).[5] He again took up his experimental work on spectroscopy and the theory of electrons in atoms and solids. His work on the Zeeman effect resulted in a correction to the accepted value of the e/m ratio, as well as stimulating R. T. Birge and J. W. M. Dumond to work up a consistent set of precise atomic constants. In solid-state physics he studied the surface photoelectric effect and made the first suggestion and analysis of the use of soft x-rays to investigate the energy bands of solids. At Caltech, and later at Rice University, he taught a course on mathematical physics, for which he wrote a textbook.[4]

During World War II, through the influence of Dr. Frank B. Jewett of the National Academy of Sciences, Houston became involved in undersea warfare research and development, for which he also had supervisory responsibility at installations at Harvard University, San Diego, and Key West.[4]

In 1946, Houston became the second president of Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston, Texas, where he served as president and professor until 1961. He resigned as president after a serious illness in 1961, but continued his teaching responsibilities. As president, Houston brought many advancements to the university, including enlargement of the graduate school, a five-year engineering program, lowering of the student-teacher ratio to 10:1, and fostering a closer relationship between the students and faculty.[4]

However, President Houston's legacy also included a staunch stance against desegregation at Rice Institute. Following several months of editorial campaigning by Brady Tyson, editor of the student newspaper the Rice Thresher, to eliminate the whites-only clause in the Rice charter and admit non-white students to the school, Houston wrote in a personal letter to Tyson: "Rice Institute was founded and chartered specifically for white students. The question of the admission of negroes is therefore not one for administrative consideration..." Progress toward racial integration at Rice would not be made until after Houston resigned as president.[8]

In 1953, Houston wrote a review of Sommerfeld’s first volume of the six-volume Lectures on Theoretical Physics, based on Sommerfeld’s six-semester course on theoretical physics.[9]

Houston was productive until the day he died in Edinburgh, Scotland on August 22, 1968. He was survived by his wife, Mildred née White, whom he married in 1924.[4]


Professional Organizations


Selected publications



  1. Kragh, 2002, p. 155.
  2. Houston – May 1927 – Sommerfeld Project
  3. A. Sommerfeld, W. V. Houston, and C. Eckart, Zeits. f. Physik 47, 1 (1928)
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Houston Biography – The National Academies Press
  5. 1 2 Author Catalog: Houston – American Philosophical Society
  6. Sommerfeld Biography – American Philosophical Society
  7. Arnold Sommerfeld Some Reminiscences of My Teaching Career, American Journal of Physics 17 (5) 315-316 (1949)
  8. Kean, Melissa Fitzsimons (2000). "At a most uncomfortable speed": The desegregation of the South's private universities, 1945--1964. Ph.D. dissertation, Rice University, Houston, Texas. p. 28.
  9. Arnold Sommerfeld, Author and W. V. Houston, Reviewer Mechanics, Lectures on Theoretical Physics, American Journal of Physics Volume 21, Issue 5, p. 399 (1953)
Academic offices
Preceded by
Edgar Odell Lovett
President of Rice University
Succeeded by
Kenneth Sanborn Pitzer
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