Edgar Bright Wilson, Jr. was born on December 18, 1908 in Gallatin, Tennessee. He grew up in Yonkers, New York. He earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees from Princeton, and then, in 1931, headed to California Institute of Technology to pursue his Ph.D. Upon completion of his doctorate, he moved to Harvard University in 1934 as one of the first Junior Fellows. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1936, and three years later to tenure. He remained at Harvard the rest of his career.
His work served as the basis of chemical physics as a field. In the late 1930s, he began work developing the basic method of quantitative study of the internal motion of atoms in molecules. His theoretical work led to the foundation of the field of molecular spectroscopy. His research has also laid the foundation for molecular astronomy.
Bright was a devout teacher, but was also loyal to his country. During the war, his lab researched shock waves in water, which was expanded in 1942 with the establishment by the National Defense Research Committee of the Underwater Explosives Research Laboratory with Bright as the director. He also briefly worked in 1952 during the Cold War as research director of the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group.
Throughout his career, Bright was awarded the National Medal of Science, the Welch Award, the Rumford Medal, the Norris Award for Teaching, and OSA’s 1979 Ellis R. Lippincott Award. He holds honorary degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia.
Bright passed away in 1992.