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Walter M. Elsasser papers

Identifier: MS-0151
Elsasser's papers consist of correspondence, writings and some personal material. They span the period 1927-1989 although the manuscript material does not begin until 1955. Although best known for his geophysical work, Elsasser believed his controversial ideas in theoretical biology were what historians would want to study. The papers, therefore, are most complete in theoretical biology.

The papers include a small amount of correspondence relating to geophysics, but the largest amount deals with theoretical biology. The remainder of the papers are copies of most of Elsasser's published articles, several of his monographs, and drafts of unpublished writings.


  • 1927-1989


Conditions Governing Use note

Single copies may be made for research purposes. Researchers are responsible for determining any copyright questions. It is not necessary to seek our permission as the owner of the physical work to publish or otherwise use public domain materials that we have made available for use, unless Johns Hopkins University holds the copyright.


5 Cubic Feet (4 record center cartons)

Biographical Note

Walter M. Elsasser was born on March 20, 1904 in Mannheim, Germany the son of Moritz and Johanna [Masius] Elsasser. He received his Ph.D. in 1927 from Goettingen where he studied quantum mechanics under Max Born. Elsasser did post-doctoral work at Leyden and Zurich (1927-28) and taught at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin (1928-30) and the University of Frankfort (1930-33). After three years at the Institute Henri Poincare at the Sorbonne (1933-36), Elsasser decided to emigrate to the United States.

His peripatetic teaching career continued with positions at the California Institute of Technology (1936-41), Harvard University's Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory (1941), the University of Pennsylvania (1947-50), the University of Utah (1950-56), Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the University of California, La Jolla (1956-62), Princeton University (1962- 67), the University of Maryland (1967-74), and the Johns Hopkins University (1974-). For a period in the 1940s Elsasser worked outside academia for the Signal Corps Laboratories (1942-44), the National Defense Research Council (1944-45), and RCA Laboratories (1945-47). For more details on these positions see Elsasser's curriculum vitae in Appendix I.

Elsasser's research interests have been as varied as his positions. After training in nuclear physics and doing research on the internal structure of the atomic nucleus, Elsasser turned to the field of geophysics. In this field he analyzed far infrared radiation in the atmosphere. One of his most notable contributions to geophysics was the explanation in the 1940s of the earth's magnetism as a self-generating dynamo in a liquid iron core. By the 1960s Elsasser began to study the earth's mantle and the emerging study of plate-tectonics.

Elsasser closed his professional career with an interest in theoretical biology. He has written articles and several volumes criticizing biologists' theory of reductionism.

Elsasser received many honors and awards including the Research Prize of the German Physical Society (1932), William Bowie Medal (1959) and the John A. Fleming Medal (1971) both of the American Geophysical Union, the C.F. Gauss Medal, the Arthur L. Day Medal of the Geological Society of America, and the National Medal of Science in 1987.

For more information see Elsasser's Memoirs of a Physicist in the Atomic Age (1978) and "My Years in Geophysics" written in 1988. A copy of the former is in the stacks QC16.E58 A35 1978 and the latter is in Series 3.

Other Finding Aids

A legacy online finding aid for this collection is available:

Immediate Source of Acquisition note

Dr. Walter M. Elsasser donated the bulk of his papers to Special Collections in May 1985. In December 1989 he added more recent correspondence and writings.

Processing Information note

Finding aid prepared by Cynthia Requardt and Margaret Burri in 1988, 1984, and 2004.

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Repository

The Sheridan Libraries
Special Collections
3400 N Charles St
Baltimore MD 21218 USA