August H. Pfund

August Herman Pfund was born December 28, 1879 in Madison, Wisconsin. He attended public schools and went on to attend the University of Wisconsin, studying under R.W. Wood, and earning a B.S. in 1901. When Wood left Wisconsin to teach at Johns Hopkins University Pfund followed his mentor and continued his studies at Hopkins. Pfund was a Carnegie research assistant during his doctoral studies and after earning a Ph.D. in 1906, he stayed on as a research assistant and Johnston scholar. Pfund remained at Hopkins as a professor and spectroscopist for the rest of his career, becoming full professor in 1927 and chair of the physics department in 1938.  

Many of Pfund’s research pursuits lead to advances in a range of fields from astronomy to medical research. His work in the field of physical optics led him to develop research tools such as the Pfund arc, infrared powder filters, the resonance radiometer, an infrared gas analyzer, the selenium polarizer.  The hydrogen series he discovered is named after him.

The field of astronomy was significantly enhanced in 1913 when Pfund devised a technique to measure the amount of thermal radiation from distant stars.  Long before the days of the global positioning satellite, he devised the Pfund sky compass, which senses polarized light in the Arctic sky and points the directional meter to a spot just above the hidden sun. This compass made polar airplane flights possible for the first time.

He also refined a way for mineralogists to easily and accurately identify precious stones by applying spectrometry to mineralogy. His research into infrared gas analysis was the basis for the design of a sensitive device that could detect the presence of even minute amounts of several poisonous gases.  This device allowed greater safety in mining operations and was also useful to the military for detecting enemy use of chemical weapons.

Pfund also developed protective goggles made of yellow glass with a thin layer of gold coating the lenses that were designed to shield the eyes from both high heat and intense light. The Pfund goggles were used by workers laboring near sources of extreme heat, such as furnaces.  As a consultant for duPont and the New Jersey Zinc Company, Pfund helped refine commercial paint pigments.  Ahead of his time, Pfund designed and built a device to measure the rate at which cancer cells manufacture carbon dioxide which has been used in medical research.

For his accomplishments, Pfund earned research medals from the Franklin Institute and the American Society for Testing Materials. However, he said that the award he found most personally fulfilling to receive was OSA’s Frederic Ives medal.  Herbert Ives (who had endowed the award named for his father) was a close friend who had also been Pfund’s college roommate while both of them were graduate students at Johns Hopkins.  Besides writing several important scientific books, Pfund published more than 70 articles on his research.

He died in 1949.