Skip to main content

This website is no longer being updated. Visit Dartmouth Now for all news published after June 7, 2010.

Dartmouth News
>  News Releases >   1998 >   December

Leonard M. Rieser 1922-1998

Posted 12/17/98

Leonard M. Rieser of Norwich, Vt. - a Dartmouth College faculty member for 46 years who helped steer the institution through one of the most eventful periods in its history, and a physicist who participated in both the Manhattan Project and in later efforts to be sure nuclear weapons were never used again - died Dec. 15 at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (Lebanon, N.H.) at age 76, of cancer.

Rieser may have been best known nationally as President and Chairman of the Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science from 1972-75; and as Chairman of the Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 1985-98, a role in which he was seen in numerous news photographs resetting the hands of the "Doomsday Clock," created by the Bulletin to dramatize the threat of nuclear war and the need for peaceful alternatives to armed conflict.

At Dartmouth, where he studied for two years as a member of the class of 1944 and which he joined as a faculty member in 1952, he served over a period of 23 years as (successively) deputy provost, dean of the faculty and provost. His administrative roles spanned the Dartmouth presidencies of the late John Sloan Dickey and John J. Kemeny, and those of President Emeritus David M. McLaughlin and President Emeritus James O. Freedman. He was instrumental in helping transform the College from a small men's liberal arts school to a more diverse, coeducational institution which still focuses on liberal arts education, but with a much larger enrollment and faculty and a much greater commitment to research.

Dartmouth President James Wright said, "Leonard Rieser served Dartmouth in many ways, as a faculty member and administrator. And he was a good friend and colleague for so many people over the last 45 years. Certainly, he ranks as one of the key half-dozen people who have reshaped and strengthened Dartmouth in the last half of the twentieth century. We owe him much."

Born May 18, 1922 in Chicago, Leonard Rieser attended public schools. Influenced by a Dartmouth graduate who was his high school Latin teacher, he came to Dartmouth as a freshman in 1940 and was a student at the College until 1942, when he transferred to the University of Chicago, to focus more on his interest in physics and to accelerate completion of his last two years of college.

Back in Chicago - with the United States having entered World War II - Rieser enlisted in the U.S. Army in the fall of 1942 but was placed on inactive duty in order to finish his bachelor's degree in physics, which he completed in December 1943. He then was assigned to active duty on the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. He worked with the project first in its Metallurgical Laboratory at Chicago for a year and then at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, where he witnessed the first atomic bomb explosion.

After the war ended, Rieser continued working at Los Alamos as a research assistant to renowned physicist Otto Frisch until the spring of 1946, when he was honorably discharged from the Army and went to Stanford University to pursue a doctorate in physics, which he received in 1952. While completing his doctoral program he also worked at Stanford, first as a teaching and research assistant and then as a research associate.

After receiving his doctorate he returned to Dartmouth in 1952 as an instructor in physics and spent the rest of his academic career at the College - after nearly leaving Dartmouth again following his first year as a faculty member. "My wife Rosemary and I both liked New England, but with young children with constant colds, life seemed a bit hard here, especially during that first winter," Rieser recounted in a 1991 interview. So he accepted an offer to return to Stanford, then thought better of it, after he had mailed his acceptance letter. He managed to retrieve his letter and retract his acceptance, but not before his name had been listed in the Stanford catalogue. "We decided to try a second year here, and ended up giving it 40," he said.

At Dartmouth he rose through the faculty ranks rapidly, becoming an Associate Professor of Physics in 1957 and Professor of Physics in 1960. Rieser also started down the academic administration track early in his career, serving as Chairman of the Department of Physics from 1957-59, then as Deputy Provost for the Sciences from 1959-64 under President Dickey. In 1964 he began 18 years of administrative service alternating between the positions of Dean of the Faculty and Provost. During this period, Rieser was in effect academic vice president of the College, with responsibility for recruitment, appointments, promotion and tenure for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; and, while serving as Provost, for Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering and Tuck School of Business Administration as well.

During those 18 years, Dartmouth celebrated its 200th year (in 1969), saw the departure of Dickey after 25 years as President and the inauguration of Kemeny in 1970, was buffeted by the same social winds that changed the face of American society generally in the late '60s and early '70s, and became coeducational in 1972. By the time Rieser retired from administrative activities in 1982, he had not only had a major impact on the composition of the faculty but had also helped guide the institution through the implementation of coeducation, significant growth in faculty and student size, the implementation of affirmative action policies, and substantial growth in its research commitment and facilities.

In 1977 he was appointed the first Chairman of the Montgomery Endowment at Dartmouth, which brings into residence at the College distinguished scholars, artists and political figures for periods ranging from a week to a year. In 1981 he was appointed Dartmouth's Sherman Fairchild Professor in the Sciences. In 1984 he was appointed the founding Director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth. He retired from Dartmouth in 1992, and was subsequently Senior Fellow of the Dickey Center and Fairchild Professor Emeritus.

Throughout his academic career Rieser remained very active in science and science organizations, both national and international. He served in a variety of capacities with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, including as a member of the AAAS Board of Directors from 1969-71 and then President and Chairman of the Board of Directors from 1972-75. He had a life-long interest in Latin American culture and society, and was a founding officer of the Interciencia Association, a federation of 15 associations for the advancement of science throughout the Americas, serving as President and Chairman of the Council of the organization from 1979-83. He was Chairman of the Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 1985 until his retirement from that position in June 1998.

Rieser was also interested in making sure that young people had a chance to learn about science. When he discovered that his own children's elementary school had no science program, he began making regular visits, complete with magnets, test tubes, and electrically-lighted bow tie. In later years, he assisted with the development of the Montshire Museum of Science (Norwich, Vt.), where he served as a member of the Board of Trustees since 1991 and was President of the Board from 1996 until his death.

Rieser also served on the grants committee of The Research Corporation (1961-67), as President of the New England Council on Graduate Education (1966); on the Overseers Committee to the Department of Sociology at Harvard University (1975-85); on the Commission on the International Exchange of Scholars (1982-86); on the Council on the Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University (1982-86); as a Trustee of Hampshire College (1984 -96); as a Trustee of the Latin American Student Programs at American Universities, located at Harvard University (1990-1996); as a consultant to the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago (1991 -1997), after spending a year there in 1990 as a visiting scholar; and as a Trustee of the Conflict Management Group.

Rieser is survived by his wife, Rosemary Rieser, of Norwich, Vermont; a daughter, Abigail Rieser of Northampton, Mass.; three sons, Leonard Rieser of Philadelphia, Timothy S. Rieser of Washington, D.C. and Kenneth Willis of Princeton, N.J.; three granddaughters; and two brothers, Lawrence Rieser of Jackson, Wyo. and William Rieser of Perkasie, Pa.

Rieser's family plans a private burial at Hillside Cemetery in Norwich, Vt. and a public memorial service on a date in January to be announced. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Montshire Museum of Science, P.O. Box 770, Montshire Rd., Norwich, Vt. 05055.

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

Recent Headlines from Dartmouth News: