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Robert Rex Brownlee, retired nuclear weapons scientist at Los Alamos, died at his home in Loveland, Colorado, on 2 May 2018 at age 94. Born in Zenith, Kansas, on 4 March 1924 to Clarence W. and Francis C. Brownlee, he was the eldest of his parents’ three children. Robert Brownlee had an inquisitive nature as a child, tracking the movements of celestial bodies and wondering about the yet-unexplained source of the sun’s energy. During the turmoil of World War II, he married his high school sweetheart Addie Leah, and they shared their life together until her passing in 2013. He is survived by his daughter Jeanne Berndsen and husband Johnny, daughter Nancy Bonnema and husband John, son Wayne Brownlee and wife Sharon, daughter Wenda Brownlee-Josh and husband Jerry, son Chipper Brownlee all living in Loveland, Colorado. Surviving also is foster son Elimelek John of Ebeye, Marshall Islands, plus 18 grandchildren and 21 great grandchildren.
In 1941, Robert Brownlee enrolled at Sterling College in Kansas, where he majored in mathematics and physics. The following year, at age 18, he left school and enlisted in the Army Air Corps, becoming a navigator of B-29 bombers in the Pacific theater during World War II. After the war, he completed his undergraduate degree at Sterling, obtained his masters degree in astronomy from the University of Kansas, and taught high school science and math. He subsequently pursued his doctorate in astronomy at Indiana University, supporting his wife and three children at the time by working three jobs. Brownlee completed his Ph.D. in 1955, with a thesis on eclipsing binary stars, then joined the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory as a nuclear physicist. In his memoir, Atomic Testing in a Nuclear Age, he recalled, “Arriving in Los Alamos was a real experience. We were driving a ’52 Ford with 3 kids (our 4th just three months away), our belongings, and a parakeet, predating a scene from the Beverly Hillbillies by about seven years. The guards at Los Alamos’ front gate took us in stride and we were permitted to proceed after lots of paper checks and proper identification.” Brownlee remained at Los Alamos for 37 years, forging an exceptional career executing and analyzing nuclear weapons tests at Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls and at the underground test site in Nevada.
At Los Alamos, Brownlee served as Alternate Division Leader of the Nuclear Test Division, and Division Leader of the Geosciences Division. He chaired the Hazards Evaluation Group, an advisory body to the Commander of the Joint Task Force, with the object of conducting nuclear tests safely. He was recognized by many in the field as the “Father of Underground Testing,” tasked with designing and overseeing the first containment tests at the Nevada Test Site. He eventually became the Scientific Deputy Commander of the Task Force, holding that position until the Task Force was inactivated in 1970. He also was a key member and served as alternate chairman of the Containment Evaluation Panel of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nevada Operations Office. From 1970 until 1993, he served as Scientific Advisor to the Director of the Office of Military Applications, DOE Headquarters, in Washington, D.C. In 1970, he chaired a panel to investigate the causes of a post-test release of radioactive material, which led to essential changes in the testing program, particularly in the area of containment evaluation.
Brownlee received an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from Sterling College and served on its Board of Trustees. He also received a Distinguished Associate Award from the DOE and had an asteroid officially named after him: 15970RobertBrownlee. In retirement, Brownlee maintained his security clearances and actively consulted to the DOE, advising, mentoring and teaching the next generation of nuclear scientists.
Brownlee traveled widely, often with his wife and family members, visiting some 90 countries during his lifetime. These trips included solar eclipse expeditions to the Pacific, Mexico, Canada, South America, Montana, and Africa. He was also an accomplished musician, who played French horn, accordion, piano, and organ; at one time, he had even considered a professional career in music. He became a skilled stained-glass artist, constructing a set of stained-glass windows for the United Church in Los Alamos, as well as stained-glass artwork for his family and friends.
In a tribute to Robert Brownlee’s life, former students wrote, “[I am] profoundly grateful for having known and having had the privilege of working with such a great scientific mind and a such a wonderful person,” and “Bob impacted my career more than any other, he was my mentor and was the most entertaining story teller I have ever known.”
Photo: Nancy Brownlee Bonnema
Obituary written by: Alan Hirshfeld (University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth)
BAAS Citation: BAAS, 2018, 50, 015