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Dr. Charlotte LeMay

Dr. Charlotte LeMay

Dr. Charlotte LeMay

Dr. Charlotte Zihlman LeMay ’40 studied under Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi as a graduate student at Columbia University. Her name is on the patent for the method by which the world’s first silicon transistor was made, which eventually led to the first silicon chip. She taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Barnard, Hunter College, Louisiana State University and Western Connecticut State University, where she chaired the physics department. But when she decided to encourage women to enter careers in physics, she established a scholarship at her alma mater. This scholarship honors a masterful teacher, supportive mentor, distinguished researcher and “100 percent Texan,” Prof. Newton Gaines. (See accompanying article.)

Charlotte LeMay’s family has been involved with TCU since its AddRan days. Her grandfather, William Alexander Darter, represented Fort Worth in its successful bid to bring TCU to the city and later served on the Board of Trustees. Her mother, Martha Adelia Darter Zihlman, her aunt, Frances Darter, and her younger sister, Blanche Darter Zihlman, graduated from TCU. Another aunt, Mary Sue Darter, chaired the art department.

But it was for financial reasons that she enrolled at the University. “My father was killed in an automobile accident in 1934,” she says. “The country was still very much in deep depression and our little family was ‘land poor‘ — lots of taxes but very little income.” Her mother studied at TCU to get a state teacher’s certificate, while substitute-teaching in the Fort Worth schools.

“In August of 1936, I went to see Prof. Gaines and told him I wanted to go to TCU and to major in physics,” she says. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Two weeks into the senior physics course at Paschal High School, I knew physics was my life’s work. Prof. Gaines listened, asked questions, and got me signed up as a National Youth Administration student doing stenographic work for the physics department. I lived at home and took the bus, which ran one block from my house, to TCU.”

In the late 1930s, the University offered a supportive environment for women in the sciences. “I was not aware of prejudice against females while I was at TCU,” Dr. LeMay recalls. “There were many women majoring in biology, and at least one other than myself in chemistry. Prof. Gaines’ own daughter, Betty, graduated in geology in 1942. If we made the grades, we were accepted as equals. I was even voted the ‘Most Representative Student in Physics’ in 1939.” Dr. LeMay graduated with a triple major — physics, chemistry and mathematics. When she applied to graduate schools, once again Prof. Gaines stepped in. “He had faith in me and wrote so many letters of recommendation trying to get me funding for graduate school,” Dr. LeMay notes. “This was before World War II and men elsewhere were definitely favored for scholarships.”

Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, offered her the Otis Skinner Fellowship in Physics. “It was quite a change for the girl who had been out of Texas only once before,” Dr. LeMay recalls. She earned the MA in physics from Mt. Holyoke in 1941, and was admitted to Columbia University.

At Columbia, she took courses under Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi. In the summer of 1942, she was given the responsibility for a physics class at Hunter College. “I could load the students into the 11-story elevator and let them experience (in the pits of their stomachs) the concepts of acceleration and deceleration,” she remembers. “That was a wonderful summer!”

Because of the war, Teller and Fermi moved on to Chicago, and in 1943 Columbia ceased giving graduate courses beyond the first year. Dr. LeMay took a position at Monsanto Chemical Company’s facility in Springfield, Massachusetts, working to develop a plastic for radar domes. One morning in the pool-car going to the plant, she heard a “beautiful Texas twang” and discovered that the voice belonged to Jack LeMay. “That is how I met my husband-to-be,” she recalls. Six months later, they married.

When WWII ended, Jack LeMay, an engineer, went to work for Union Carbide Corp. and was sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Charlotte LeMay was hired by Louisiana State University, where she taught premed physics students who were returning from war on the GI Bill of Rights —110 of them. “All were trying to get into medical school at the same time and had to take a year of physics,” she remembers. “You never saw such competition!” At LSU, Dr. LeMay did experimental work under Prof. George Jaffé, who had worked under Marie Curie. She earned the Ph.D. in physics from LSU in 1950, when her first child was five years old.

After several transfers, the LeMays, now with two sons, moved to Dallas. Dr. LeMay contacted Texas Instruments and was told that they weren’t hiring women except for assembly line work. When Jack LeMay, still with Union Carbide, called on the director of TI’s semiconductor division, he mentioned that his wife had finished her doctorate doing work on dielectric liquids. “Tell her to phone me,” he was told. Soon Charlotte LeMay became the fifth “man” in the semiconductor division. “TI ‘pulled’ its first germanium crystal, made its first transistor, according to Bell Lab’s directions, and we were in business,” she recalls.

Jack LeMay, who passed away in 1998, spent most of his career with Union Carbide. At that time, people who worked for large corporations frequently were transferred. Consequently, the family moved from Dallas to California, where Dr. LeMay worked for the Stanford Research Institute. After one year, they were transferred back to Dallas, and Dr. LeMay again worked for TI.

While she was in California, TI had obtained very pure silicon for the first time. Silicon was abundant in nature as a compound, ordinary sand, but it had not previously been purified enough as a single element to be used as a semiconductor. She used the new silicon to make the world’s first silicon transistor. “We notified the right people in the government, and the next day, five men in uniforms were in our lab,” she remembers. “They had flown down over night. We had never seen so much gold braid!”

The next move was to Pittsburgh — now with three children, two boys and a girl. Dr. LeMay worked for Westinghouse as one of three “men” who made the first silicon carbide transistor. “Though by modern standards it was not small, for that time it was,” Dr. LeMay notes. “I was able to take a picture of it through the eye of a needle.”

In 1960, the family was transferred to New York, where Dr. LeMay went to work for IBM’s Watson Research Laboratory. After three years, she decided to return to teaching. Dr. LeMay chaired the physics department at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Connecticut, for 12 years. She is now retired and lives in Nokomis, Florida.

Prof. Newton Gaines has remained an influence throughout her life. “Two things that I learned from Dr. Gaines that were not strictly physics were, first, people feel honored to help you with something, if you know what you want, and, second, never be afraid. You can do anything you want to do, if you make up your mind to do it. Many years later, when I was chairman of a department of physics in Danbury, Connecticut, there were four physics majors doing their senior projects. When they knew exactly what they needed, I went to companies in the area and told the company people what the projects required. The companies were always gracious about helping us and would never let me pay them.”

“That second point — be confident in yourself — has many times been the only thing that kept me going. When you start something, finish it.”

Dr. LeMay created the Professor Newton Gaines Scholarship through a gift of real estate. “There are only a few days of pure joy in a person’s lifetime, but January 24, 2002, was one for me,” Dr. LeMay says. “ It was the day I signed the documents transferring ownership of the second lot in Westchester County, New York, to Texas Christian University. I was finally paying back a little on the gift of faith that TCU had given to me. I was so happy!”