Search Google Appliance


A brilliant life
Author: Suzanne Pardington
Posted: January 18, 2012


Three weeks before she died on October 4 at age 99, physicist Gertrude Rempfer visited her basement lab at Portland State for the last time.


BY THEN her body was frail, but her mind was still sharp as she continued to advise graduate students and collaborate with colleagues to design, build, and perfect an electron microscope.

Well into her late 90s, Rempfer would rise early to do chores on her eight-acre farm in Forest Grove (her daughter would often wake to the sound of a power saw), pack a rustic lunch of bread and cheese, drive herself to Hillsboro, ride MAX downtown, and then walk to campus. She always carried a pad of paper to do calculations and sometimes help a struggling math student along the way. 

Rempfer, known as “Gert,” became a world-class physicist at a time when women were told—as she once was—that they should not take jobs away from men. She was a pioneer in electron optics who did her most prolific work after she retired from teaching at age 65. And she was a mother and teacher as devoted to her family, students, and ideals as she was to her research. 

“She had a brilliance that you don’t find every day; she was a phenomenon,” says Hayes Griffith, a professor emeritus at University of Oregon who worked closely with her for 25 years. 

GROWING UP IN SEATTLE, Rempfer liked math, botany, and being outdoors. During the Depression, her mother encouraged her to enroll at the University of Washington, where she first studied forestry. She switched to physics after she was not allowed into a required, all-male forestry camp. 

It was not the last time sexism, racism, or politics would force her to change course.

At her first academic job at Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, she was passed over for a tenure-track position because a man was given preference. In the early 1950s, she and her husband, the late PSU math professor Robert Rempfer, were forced out of their jobs at Antioch College for trying to prevent the execution of convicted spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. They then lost their teaching jobs at Fisk University, a historically black institution, for supporting racial integration. She joined the Portland State faculty in 1961.

“She said there are always obstacles, but they are an illusion,” recalls her daughter, Rhoda Rempfer Kameroff, a Native American the Rempfers adopted at age three. “She had a drive in her. If you told her she couldn’t do it, she’d do it all the more.” 

Rempfer had four other children, and she once acknowledged her career was in low gear while she raised them. At age 78 she said she was in her prime, and she kept going for another two decades. She published, received grants, submitted patents, mentored graduate students, and won awards for her contributions to science.

ROLF KOENENKAMP, who holds the Gertrude Rempfer Endowed Chair in Physics, said Rempfer’s most notable scientific contribution was her demonstration that a mirror can be used to correct aberrations and improve the resolution of electron microscopes. In her last decade of life, Koenenkamp and his research team worked with her to build what he called “the best microscope of its kind in the world” based on her designs.

In addition to working well with colleagues, Rempfer would do anything she could to help graduate students, in and out of the lab. It was her students who helped fund the Rempfer Chair in Physics. “Even some who had received Ds,” remembers physics professor Erik Bodegom. The University is now creating a student scholarship to honor her work.

As Rempfer grew weaker in her last year of life, her happiest days were those when she was driven to campus to visit her lab, Rempfer Kameroff says. When she couldn’t make it, she would work in her study at home, taking breaks only for chocolate. 

“I spent hours with her on the telephone,” Koenenkamp says. “We were not talking about the grandkids; those were conversations about science.”