Longtime GE researcher dies, started career on Manhattan Project

Charlotte DeBlois sits at center with clockwise from left, George DeBlois, 14, Andrew DeBlois, Kitsa DeBlois, Nicole, 13, and Stephen DeBlois in their Niskayuna home Wednesday, April 15, 2015. (Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer)Charlotte DeBlois sits at center with clockwise from left, George DeBlois, 14, Andrew DeBlois, Kitsa DeBlois, Nicole, 13, and Stephen DeBlois in their Niskayuna home Wednesday, April 15, 2015. (Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer)

BY REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — Ralph De Blois’ first job was more memorable than most.

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, De Blois was a college sophomore. By 1943, he had graduated from the University of Michigan, skipping summer vacation to complete his undergraduate degree in physics a year early.

“Ralph De Blois, ’43, is working on a government war project at Columbia University,” read a 1944 edition of the Michigan Alumnus.

But until August 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that vague description was all anyone in De Blois’ life knew about his secretive civilian employment with the Army Corps of Engineers, where he participated in research on the Manhattan Project.

Over time, his work in the field of physics would bring him to Beirut, then to Schenectady to work for what was then called the General Electric Research Laboratory. But his very first project occupied a churning corner of his mind throughout his life.

De Blois died Monday at his home on Antonia Drive in Niskayuna at age 93. A few days later, his widow, Charlotte, and his children and grandchildren gathered to retell some of their favorite stories. They described him as sharp, lively and a good listener who was mentally acute until his last few days of failing health. Even as EMTs transported De Blois from the hospital to a hospice bed in his living room, his family overheard him citing academic journals and papers he thought would interest a young technician who was pushing his wheelchair.

Though his disposition was quiet and thoughtful, De Blois was always willing to answer his 14-year-old grandson George’s questions, including ones about his wartime contributions.

“He was told that the targets were military targets,” George said. “He regretted the second dropping very much.”

De Blois’ three children, Steve, Andrew, and Irene, who graduated from Niskayuna High School in 1978, 1980, and 1981, respectively, all knew their father had gladly left government work in favor of continuing his professional life as a civilian researcher.

“I remember he said at the end of the war, he was offered a commission to stay on,” Andrew De Blois said. “He said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ ”

Instead, he went back to the University of Michigan, where he earned his master’s degree in physics and did some doctoral work, though he didn’t complete that degree until the mid-1960s, when he earned it through RPI. After leaving Michigan, he taught physics at the American University of Beirut, traveling throughout the Middle East on school vacations.

“It was still relatively peaceful,” Steve De Blois recalled.

He visited Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan, as well as Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. He relaxed by the Mediterranean Sea and went skiing in the mountains near the university. A talented photographer, he left behind a photographic record of his travels that his family now cherishes.

“We still have all the slides,” Steve De Blois said.

Back in the United States, he found a home for his scientific problem-solving skills at GE. From 1954 to 1986, he worked as a research physicist there, eventually earning his doctorate in 1963, with one of his colleagues, Charles Bean, as his thesis co-adviser.

In 1959, he married his wife, Charlotte.

Even when they were children, De Blois’ kids remember being fascinated by the work he did.

“There was this one cool project he worked on, an analyzer,” Andrew De Blois said.

It was a Coulter counter, a device that could count and measure tiny particles like bacteria and viruses floating in a liquid such as saline.

De Blois was happy to research a difficult concept purely for the sake of knowledge and sometimes became annoyed when people asked him what his inventions or discoveries would ever be used for. But the analyzer had a variety of applications. Even recently, a couple of years before his death, a student found one of his patents and called De Blois to get advice about his own work.

Another proud project was one of the first-ever photographs of a miniscule nickel crystal. After creating the image, De Blois worked with artist Ken Staley of Niskayuna to have the picture turned into a work of abstract art. That art, in turn, made it into Time Magazine in 1971 and the cover of the Journal of Applied Physics, according to Chris Hunter, director of archives and collections at the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady. De Blois later donated the artwork to the museum.

“There were so many brilliant minds at GE in the ’60s and ’70s,” Steve De Blois said, with his father working alongside Ivar Giaever, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1973.

“He really loved it,” said Kitsa De Blois, his daughter-in-law, with whom he was close. “He was very lucky.”

Even after his retirement, De Blois lived in constant pursuit of knowledge. Jim Bray, chief scientist and a Coolidge fellow at GE Global Research, was De Blois’ manager for a few years. Even recently, he had seen De Blois at GE, where he typically walked when the weather was good.

“We have a Friday general interest technical seminar series here, at noon on Fridays, that we allow our retirees to attend,” Bray said. “Ralph was a relatively religious attendee at those. I could just about always count on Ralph showing up at the meetings.”

In his free time, De Blois’ mind often returned to his first job, where he became a small part of the enormous history of World War II and the Manhattan Project. He read history books about the time period and wrote letters to The Daily Gazette whenever he felt he could offer his perspective on that event.

“I think he questioned standard thought about ending the war,” Steven De Blois said.

“Many of Truman’s advisers opposed dropping the bomb,” De Blois reminded Gazette readers in a letter published August 2013.

And, as was his nature, he recommended further reading.

This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.