Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1924, Ervin J. Fenyves was able to escape a labor camp during Wold War II, study pharmacology, physics and mathematics, specialize in nuclear and high-energy physics, astrophysics, and eventually play a major role in the development of advanced particle detectors. On October 14, the scientist, who was internationally awarded many times over and served on the physics faculty of The University of Texas at Dallas for more than 40 years, died the age of 90. His wife Vera had preceded him in death.
Leaving a legacy that includes not only his research, but also his son, Dr. Andrew Fenves, a graduate of UT Southwestern Medical School and a physician in Boston, his daughter, Eva Salamon, a pharmacist in Bethesda, Maryland, three grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren, Fenyves is now remembered as a man with a great sense of humor who sought to live his life to the fullest.
“He also liked children, always playing chess with and explaining physics to our young children,” added Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, the Leah and Paul Lewis Chair of Holocaust Studies, professor of literature and the history of ideas, director of the Holocaust Studies program, and a fellow Hungarian who chronicled the Fenyves’ remarkable life.
After spending his childhood in Hungary, Fenyves began studying mathematics and physics before the beginning of the World War II, but when the country was occupied by the Germans, he was deported to a labor camp. There, he was able to become a physician, and later escape. But it was not until the end of the war that Fenyves managed to return to his studies. He ended up earning degrees in pharmacology, physics, and mathematics, as well as a PhD in physics from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and a doctor of physical sciences degree from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Still living in Hungary, Fenyves earned several academic and research appointments, including professor at Eötvös Loránd University, head of the Laboratory of Cosmic Rays and deputy scientific director of the Central Research Institute for Physics at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He also later became vice director of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Physics in Dubna, Russia. As head of the physics section of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, the researcher was one of the creators of the application of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
In 1969, Fenyves immigrated to the United States with his wife Vera and son Andrew, leaving their daughter Eva, who was already an adult, in Hungary. After working for a year at the University of Pennsylvania, fellow Hungarian Istvan Ozsváth, a professor of mathematics and one of the founding faculty members of UT Dallas, along with his wife, Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, helped Fenyves to start his career at the school that lasted 40 years, and ended in 2011 with his retirement, at age 87.
In addition to being a professor emeritus of physics at UT Dallas, between 1989 and 1992 Fenyves also served as an adjunct professor of radiology at the UT Southwestern Medical Center. His studies included cosmic-ray physics and related experimental techniques, but also high-energy and elementary particle physics and neutrino physics. The researcher developed sensitive neutron detectors with applications both in particle physics research and in the detection of shielded nuclear weapons within cargo, in collaboration with investigators from other facilities.
“Ervin Fenyves was one of the longest-standing members of our university and a valued member of the high-energy physics group,” said Wolfgang Rindler, a professor of physics at UT Dallas, and expert in relativity, who is at the facility since its foundation. “Ervin had a brilliant mind, an incredible memory, wide-ranging interests and a great talent for explaining complicated matters in simple terms. He will be sorely missed.”
Fenyves remained associated with his native country as a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and was internationally awarded throughout his career with recognitions like the Brodi-Schmidt Prize from the Hungarian Physical Society, the Prize for Books from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the 1965 Hungarian National Prize (Kossuth Prize).