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In Honor of Emeritus Chemistry Professor Pete Thompson

Peggy (left) and Pete Thompson, 2016

Peggy and Pete Thompson, 2016

President Valerie Smith shared the following message with the campus community on January 25, 2021:

Dear Friends,

With deep sadness, I write to share the news that Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Peter Trueman Thompson died at his home in Newtown Square, Pa., on Wednesday, Jan. 13. He was 91.

Pete, who served on the faculty for nearly 40 years, is remembered for his complete devotion to teaching and mentoring students and colleagues alike, and for the enduring, lifelong friendships he forged as a result. Over the course of his tenure, he helped transform the chemistry curriculum at Swarthmore from one firmly established in the subjects and techniques of the early 20th century to one that is modern, dynamic, and responsive to the latest developments in the field. 

Pete is predeceased by Peggy, his wife of 64 years and a longtime College staff and chorus member who died in 2018. He is survived by their children T. Scott Thompson, Susan Thompson, Barbara Amann, and Joseph Thompson, and eight grandchildren. While COVID-19 prevents a public gathering at this time, any gifts in his name may be directed to the Chester Charter Scholars Academy or the Chester Children’s Chorus, of which Pete was a passionate supporter.

I invite you to read more below about Pete and his many contributions to our community. 


Val Smith

In Honor of Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Pete Thompson

Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Peter Trueman Thompson died Wednesday, Jan. 13, at age 91. With his passing, Swarthmore has lost one of its most dedicated faculty members whose steady and joyful presence continued to enliven our community well after he retired 25 years ago. 

“Pete was respected by all for his clarity of thought and his unblemished honesty,” says Bob Pasternack, the Edmund Allen Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Biochemistry, who considered Thompson a mentor and friend from the moment the Thompsons picked him up at the Greyhound bus station when he first arrived in Philadelphia in 1982. “He and Peg were extraordinarily kind and generous in helping me adjust to my new institution and remained true and good friends throughout.” 

Although Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Kathleen Howard came to Swarthmore in 1997, after Thompson had retired, he “welcomed me wholeheartedly and gave me copies of all the physical chemistry exams he had given over the years,” she says. “His enthusiasm for life, chemistry, and Swarthmore was contagious and energizing.”  

Tom Stephenson, the James H. Hammons Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, also benefited from Thompson’s counsel and support as a junior faculty member and young department chair. “We could always count on Pete for a well-placed question, a thought-provoking answer, and wisdom tempered by his years of experience in the department and in College governance,” he says. “One still hears an occasional echo of some of Pete's favorite expressions in our departmental dialogue.”

Thompson, the youngest of three children and the son of a chemist, was born in Palmerton, Pa., on the edge of the state’s coal region. He earned a B.A. in chemistry in 1951 from Johns Hopkins University, where he ran track and cross country and broke a time record held for more than 20 years by his father. 

A member of Sigma Xi and Sigma Tau honor societies, Thompson completed a Ph.D. in 1956 under the guidance of Henry S. Frank at the University of Pittsburgh. For two years, he continued his work on the behavior of aqueous electrolyte solutions as a research associate and instructor. By the time he joined Swarthmore’s faculty in 1958, he had already published a number of articles on the topic.

At that time, quantum mechanics was not taught as part of the physical chemistry curriculum. It had also not been part of Thompson’s own training. Recognizing this notable deficiency, he learned the material on his own and taught the College’s first courses on the topic, reshaping the department's curriculum in the process.

Throughout his tenure as a faculty member, Thompson was a caring and supportive mentor to numerous research students, understanding that some of the best teaching occurs in the lab. In 1961, he received support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for students to spend the summer conducting research under his direction. Thompson also heralded the 1984 donation of a spectrometer to the College, which would allow students to determine the structure of various kinds of molecules — a practice he described as “the heart” of organic chemistry. 

“Swarthmore is one of the few liberal arts colleges at which undergraduates do graduate-level research,” Thompson said proudly at the time. “There are no research instruments at Swarthmore that are not in the hands of students.” 

“In all of his work, Pete remained laser-focused on the question, ‘What is in the best interests of the students?’” Stephenson says. “This dedication drove his famous, or infamous, commitment to rigor in his courses, his development of beautifully elegant and meticulous lab experiments, and his long hours spent working side by side with research students on exacting thermodynamic measurements and calculations.”

Thompson also pursued his own research, on the irreversible thermodynamics of aqueous electrolyte solutions, at the University of Cambridge, where he held an NSF fellowship; at what is now the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.; and at the University of Delaware, where he frequently served as a visiting professor. Ultimately, he authored or co-authored dozens of scholarly articles.

Thompson’s service to the College extended well beyond his classes. He chaired the Division of Natural Sciences and Engineering at two different times in the 1960s and the Chemistry Department at various times in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. He also worked with President Courtney Smith to examine the College’s governing structure in order to determine how faculty and students could serve together on College committees. 

“Pete was enthusiastically engaged with the whole College,” says Ray Hopkins, the Richter Professor Emeritus of Political Science. “His eagerness to share developments in chemistry and science with colleagues in other divisions was matched by a dedication to political and social causes. He overfulfilled the ideal of supplying ‘social capital’ for the College community.”

Upon his retirement in 1995, 10 of Thompson’s former students presented papers on “The Diversity of Physical Chemistry” at a symposium held during Alumni Weekend. Thompson continued to live nearby and remained an active, steady presence on campus, especially at Chemistry Department events and College performances. 

“Pete’s positive attitudes won him friends throughout the campus,” says Robert Bannister, the Scheuer Professor Emeritus of History. “His varied interests brought colleagues together making Swarthmore College the special place that it is.”

Music, in particular, served as a way for Pete and Peggy to continue to forge community and educate themselves. They regularly attended Orchestra 2001 concerts and worked alongside music professor Tom Whitman ’84 to bring the Balinese Gamelan music program into Chester’s public schools. 

But perhaps nothing captured their heart and devotion as much as the Chester Children’s Chorus (CCC). They were early supporters of the chorus, founded and led by John Alston H’15, and championed Alston’s further efforts to establish what is now the Chester Charter Scholars Academy. There, Pete Thompson was known by the students as “Magic Boy” for his ability to pull quarters out of their ears.

Alston recalls the Thompsons attending many CCC concerts over the years and the “warm twinkle in his eyes” that Pete Thompson would have when they would hang back long enough after the audience had left so that they could talk. 

“He always had that look when Peggy was happy, or when watching others enjoy their happiness,” Alston says. “I imagine Pete was like this all the time, hoping everyone could be as happy as he was, and helping them get there.”     

“This was a man who revered his wife, adored his kids, and cherished his many memories of Swarthmore and the strong personalities that Swarthmore attracted and nurtured,” Board of Managers member Joseph Turner ’73 says of the faculty adviser he “idolized” and whose guidance and support he credits with his decision to major in chemistry. “Swarthmore for him was the dream made real. His was the life of a truly rich man.”

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