Union of Concerned Scientists Cofounder Kurt Gottfried Dies at 93

The Cornell University physicist was an advocate on issues such as nuclear weapons and climate change.

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter

Lisa Winter became social media editor for The Scientist in 2017. In addition to her duties on social media platforms, she also pens obituaries for the website. She graduated from Arizona State University, where she studied genetics, cell, and developmental biology.

View full profile.

Learn about our editorial policies.

Sep 20, 2022

Kurt Gottfried, a physicist, author, and activist, died on August 25 at the age of 93. He cofounded the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in the 1960s and was a vocal advocate of nuclear disarmament, action on climate change, and scientist involvement in public discourse.

Gottfried was born in Vienna on May 17, 1929, to two PhD-holding chemists, according to The New York Times. The Gottfrieds’ home was invaded by Nazis during the pogrom Kristallnacht in November 1938. The family fled to Canada by way of Belgium, eventually settling in Montreal. Gottfried attended nearby McGill University and studied physics, graduating in 1952. He then went to graduate school at MIT, where he roomed with another physics student, Henry Kendall, with whom he would later establish the UCS (Kendall would also go on to win the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics).  Upon earning his PhD in 1955, Gottfried married Sorel Dickstein and they had two children, David and Laura, according to his obituary

Black and white photograph of a man looking into the camera.
During Kurt Gottfried’s 30-year career at Cornell University, he cofounded and served on the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Union of Concerned Scientists

He completed two fellowships at Harvard University before becoming an assistant professor there in 1960. His next move was to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1964, where he worked on the foundations of quantum mechanics with a focus on quark-antiquark pairs, according to his staff profile. He held various leadership positions during his time at Cornell and retired as a professor emeritus in 1998.

Gottfried is best known for his activities outside of the lab. In 1969, he grew increasingly concerned about the Vietnam War—then at its height—and the role of scientists in researching and developing devastating weapons. Gottfried and Kendall organized an event on MIT’s campus on March 4 of that year in which they called on scientists to band together and speak out against what Gottfried often referred to as a “misuse of science.” The Union of Concerned Scientists was born, and Gottfried was active on its board from the start. He also authored three books and many articles related to scientific responsibility over the years, asserting that scientists should spend time creating advances that would benefit humanity, not destroy it. After retiring from Cornell, Gottfried served as the UCS chair from 1999 until 2009.

“Kurt clearly felt that scientists were obligated to participate in efforts to help shape public policy at the interface between science and society,” Peter Lepage, a professor emeritus of physics, tells the Cornell Chronicle. “He showed us all how this could be done effectively with his extensive work, over more than four decades, on such topics as nuclear arms control, international human rights, climate change and scientific integrity in policymaking.”

The last decade of Gottfried’s life was spent in a nursing facility in Ithaca, alongside his wife. He was predeceased by his wife last year and is survived by his two children, four grandchildren, and his sister.