Max Mason

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Charles Max Mason (commonly known as Max Mason) was born in 1877 in Madison, Wisconsin. A well-regarded mathematician, Mason’s eclectic career spanned the fields of teaching, research, university administration and philanthropy.

Mason graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1898 before earning his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Göttingen in Germany in 1903. Upon his return to the U.S., Mason taught mathematics at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University before becoming a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1908.

During World War I Mason took a leave of absence in order to work on the Submarine Committee of the National Research Council (NRC). This work was instrumental in the development of the Mason Hydrophone, a detection device that allowed naval crews to pinpoint the location of German submarines. This research later contributed to the development of sonar detectors in World War II. Following the war, Mason resumed his career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In 1925 Mason was asked to become president of the University of Chicago. He accepted the position but remained there for only three years before becoming the director of the Natural Sciences Division of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF). Mason was quickly promoted, and in 1929 he was named president of the Foundation. At the Foundation Mason’s personal interest in behavioral research influenced both the experimental biology program of the Natural Sciences Division and the Medical Sciences Division, where initiatives in psychiatry flourished under his supervision. 

In 1936 Mason resigned from the RF and joined the team overseeing the construction of the RF-funded Palomar Observatory in California. This project, completed in 1948, allowed Mason to return to physics. Throughout his life he published a number of articles and books in the fields of mathematics and physics, including The Electromagnetic Field (1929), which he co-authored with fellow RF staffer Warren Weaver. Mason was also elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the German Mathematical Society.

Following the completion of the observatory, Mason retired to Claremont, California. Max Mason passed away in 1961. His papers can be accessed by researchers at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland. His officer's diaries are digitized and can be accessed through the Rockefeller Archive Center's online collections.