Peter Fedders


Peter A. Fedders, Emeritus Professor of Physics, passed away in La Jolla, California on February 22, 2024 at the age of 85.

Peter came to Washington University in 1967 and retired in 2004. He was valedictorian of Edina (Minnesota) High School in 1957, took his bachelors degree at Yale, where he was Phi Beta Kappa, and his PhD at Harvard working under P. C. Martin and H. Ehrenreich. After a post-doctoral stint at Princeton, he moved to Washington University.

Peter is well remembered as a brilliant theorist with contributions in diverse areas of solid-state theory. In his early years, he published fundamental papers on magnetism and spin systems, interests that persisted throughout his career. Soon after his arrival at Washington University, he developed an unusual affinity for interpreting experiments – linking sophisticated analysis to physical observations, especially involving Nuclear Acoustic Resonance and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Peter published extensively with Dan Bolef, Richard Norberg, and Ronald Sundfors and together they maintained the Washington University tradition of excellence in magnetic resonance initiated by George Pake. In addition to collaboration with the magnetic resonance groups of the time, he studied problems in surface physics, and, stimulated by the arrival of Anders Carlsson in 1983, explored the electronic structure of materials. In the last several years of his career, Peter applied ab initio molecular dynamics, then quite new, often in collaboration with his former students Otto Sankey (a pioneer of the field) and David Drabold. A connecting thread though much of Peter’s career was understanding the physical consequences of disorder and defects in condensed matter. This involved topological disorder – the structure of amorphous materials and glasses — as well as alloy and magnetic disorder in various forms. Peter published over 200 scientific papers.

Peter was an excellent instructor across the spectrum of undergraduate and graduate courses. Many Washington University Physics PhDs fondly remember his course on Classical Electrodynamics. Peter directed four dissertation students: Y.-T. Loh (1973), C. W. Myles (1973), O. F. Sankey (1979) and D. A. Drabold (1989). Peter’s students revered him, and all became close friends in later years. The last three collaborated with each other and Peter, long after their time at Washington University. There is still a strong sense of “ family” among Fedders’ students, and now subsequent generations.

Peter was one of the great personalities of the department and a respected colleague. He possessed diverse interests: making superb models of World War I aircraft, publishing on the Air War in World War I, and had a deep and broad interest in history. He always had some scientific or historical topic on his mind and loved to debate these with anyone, anytime! He was also an avid gardener, growing many vegetables for his own table and some to give away.

He also had a mischievous streak and a striking sense of humor, and especially enjoyed poking fun at the powers that be. He kept a BB gun in his office, which we would sometimes shoot down the hall. An expert with rifles, he never hit anyone. At a time when scientific computing was still done on university mainframe computers dominated by administrative tasks, he got frustrated with his small allocation of disk space. Until he figured out that he could expand his resources by creating a new student, named “ Antler”, loosely derived from his and Carlsson’s names. No one in the administration ever complained. His experiences led to the expansion of the department’s use of micro- and mini-computers and the recognition of scientific computing within the university as an important new tool.

Upon retiring from academic life, Peter and his wife Cindy moved to San Diego. He spent ten years as a docent at the San Diego Air and Space Museum and another ten at the Natural History Museum, spending much of his time at his beloved Balboa Park.

Peter is survived by his wife Cynthia; children William and Megan; four grandchildren and a great grand