Charles H. Holbrow (1935-2023)

Holbrow was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, to Frederick Holbrow and Florence Louisa (Gile) Holbrow. At age 15, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a Ford Foundation Pre-Induction Fellow, and earned a BA in history in 1955. In 1956, Holbrow married Mary Louise Ross, a Kemper K. Knapp scholar from a 365-acre Wisconsin farm. They started their family while Holbrow completed an AM in history and Russian studies at Columbia’s Russian Institute.

Inspired by the Sputnik 1 launch and beginning of the space age, Holbrow returned to Wisconsin with the family and completed a PhD in physics in 1963.

After an assistant professorship at Haverford College, Holbrow was a professor of physics at Colgate University from 1967 until his retirement in 2003. He was named Charles A. Dana Professor of Physics in 1986 and, at the dawn of the computer age, was instrumental in establishing the Colgate Computer Center and the Department of Computer Science.

Holbrow frequently joined other academic institutions as a visiting professor and researcher, including Stanford University, California Institute of Technology, Stony Brook University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, SRI International, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Vienna, and the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research. In 1975 he and a group of physicists, life scientists, engineers, and social scientists spent a summer together working for NASA designing a habitat for 10,000 people that would orbit Earth, a design that is still the basis today of many popular representations of space colonies. He co-edited the group’s final report “Space Settlements: A Design Study.”

Holbrow was interested in creative physics teaching methods and curricular innovation. He served as president of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), and was awarded the 2012 Oersted Medal for his major contributions to physics education and research.

After retiring from Colgate, he and Mary lived in Massachusetts. A visiting professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he worked on developing physics MOOCs. As a visiting scholar at Harvard University, he won an award for excellence in teaching. He created an alumni group for Ford Foundation Fellows, and was active in both the Lexington Computer and Technology Group and the Lexington Community Education Program.

Holbrow died grateful to Mary, “the love of his life” and “a wonderfully interesting human being,” for her partnership in what he believed was his main contribution to society: his children. A proud, supportive, and loving husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and uncle, he is survived by his wife Mary; their five daughters, Gwendolyn Holbrow (Mark), Elizabeth Brown (Brett), Alice Holbrow (Barb Kneer), Katherine Holbrow, and Martha Sandler (Craig); seven grandchildren, Hilary Holbrow (Gabe), Charles Holbrow (Helen Corless), Giles Holbrow, Felicity Holbrow, Allison Brown, Kate Brown, and Lila Sandler; two great-grandchildren, Martin and Francis Holbrow; and nieces, Karen Hoxie and Sue Hoxie (Dave Surprenant). He was preceded in death by his parents and his sister Joan Hoxie.

A memorial service will be held at 10AM EDT, Friday May 3, 2024, at Follen Church, 755 Massachusetts Avenue, Lexington, MA. In honor of Holbrow’s love for family and physics, and in lieu of flowers, contributions to the AAPT “In Memory of Charles H. Holbrow,” will advance physics teaching and learning by supporting dependent-care grants for AAPT members to attend national conferences.


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2 Condolences

  1. Frank Titus on January 7, 2024 at 1:35 pm

    RIP Chuck

  2. Thomas Brackett on January 12, 2024 at 2:58 pm

    Here is hoping you end up in a better place than any of the fine places you have ever been.

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