Walker’s legacy marked by faith, physics intellect

William Walker, James B. Duke professor emeritus of physics, passed away Thursday morning at the Duke Home Care and Hospice, after a nearly 20-year battle with skin cancer. He was 86 years old. 

Walker has been at the University for 39 years and served as chair of the physics department for six years from 1971 to 1977. Family and friends remember him for his devotion to science and to integrity. 

“He was the finest man I’ve ever known,” his son Sam Walker, Trinity ’80, said in an interview Thursday night. “[He had] absolutely penetrating honesty to the point of making you uncomfortable. He would call things the way they were.” 

Walker graduated from Rice University in 1944 and served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy where he worked in the physical optics division of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. until the end of World War II. In 1949, he earned his doctorate in physics from Cornell University and then conducted post-doctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley. Shortly after, he joined the physics department at the University of Wisconsin, eventually serving as its chair. For his work, Walker was recognized as a Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Wisconsin and as a fellow of the American Physical Society.  

Walker had an illustrious career as a physicist and professor after completing his education. In the 1950s, he pioneered equipment for the study of subatomic particles, leading the team at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill. that constructed the 30-inch hydrogen “bubble chamber”—a vessel filled with superheated liquid to detect electronically charged particles. Years later, he co-discovered the “rho meson,” one of a handful of sub-atomic particles then known to exist. These discoveries allow scientists to have a broader understanding of how the universe came into being, Sam added. 

In 1971, Walker transferred to Duke as chair of the physics department. He was named a James B. Duke professor of physics in 1990 for his outstanding research and service to the University. 

“On a personal level… he was kind, he was friendly. He was intelligent and was always a pleasure to work with,” said Thomas Phillips, associate research professor of physics. “I will certainly miss him.”

Walker was one of a few devoted Christians within the physics department, Phillips said. Although he was an atheist for most of his life, he “returned to faith” in his mid-30’s, according to Sam. After studying theology at the University of South in Sewanee, Tenn. in the 1960s, Walker was ordained in the Episcopal Church. He later became an elder of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Durham. 

“I remember one particular night, lying in bed, thinking about physics and essentially the Lord said ‘okay, are you going to turn your life over to me?’ We argued back and forth, back and forth. Finally, I said ‘okay’ and that was it,” Sam quoted his father as saying. “Things changed… I had a change of character. I became intensely aware of the Lord’s presence in my work.”

Last year, the physics department held a recognition ceremony for Walker, honoring his achievements in physics and education. 

“He has always been one to explore new ideas in our field rather than follow the current research fads,” Al Goshaw, James B. Duke professor of physics, said at the ceremony. “Bill has been a leader at Duke in the physics department and University.” 

Walker is survived by his beloved wife of 35 years, Constance Walker, a senior research scientist in the physics department, as well as three children, ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, April 17 at 2:00 p.m. at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Durham. Donations in Walker’s memory can be made to the church or to Duke Home Care and Hospice. 


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