Anderson, Thomas Foxen, 1911-1991

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Thomas Foxen Anderson, a biophysicist and electron microscopist, was born on February 7, 1911 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. After attending high schools in Wisconsin, Illinois, and California and graduating from Glendale Union High School in California in 1928, he entered the California Institute of Technology, where he received a B.S. in chemistry in 1932.

At this early stage of his scientific career, Anderson began to display a remarkable technological ingenuity and a penchant for using advanced technologies to resolve microscopic structures. During a post-graduate year abroad at the University of Munich, he employed an inexpensive spectrograph to study the dispersion of crystals, working under the guidance of physical chemists, Kasimir Fajans and Peter Wulff. After his return to Cal. Tech. in 1933, to pursue graduate studies with Don M. Yost and Linus Pauling, Anderson became an expert in Raman spectroscopic analysis of polyatomic molecules. Several publications resulted from this work before Anderson received his doctorate in chemistry in 1936.

Anderson assumed his first professional appointment as Instructor in Surface Chemistry at the University of Chicago from 1936 to 1937, where his work with William D. Harkins led to the development of a simple accurate film balance and a micropipette of high accuracy. From Chicago, he returned to his native Wisconsin to become Investigator in Botany at the University of Wisconsin (1937-1939), where he and B.M. Duggar engaged in projects concerning the effects of ultraviolet light on yeast. In 1939, he was appointed Instructor in Physical Chemistry.

It was in the following year, however, that Anderson was offered a position that changed the direction of his career, from a focus on chemistry to a focus on electron microscopy. In 1940, RCA gave grant money to the National Research Council to establish and administer a committee and fellowship to explore the biological applications of the electron microscope, a technology still in its infancy. In September 1940, Stuart Mudd, as chair of the Committee for research, selected Anderson as RCA Fellow and appointed him Secretary of the Committee. Anderson served in this capacity until 1942.

Well before Anderson's arrival, RCA had demonstrated a strong commitment to developing the electron microscope and exploring its commercial potential. In 1938, RCA's Dr. V.K. Zworykin had brought L. Marton from Belgium to develop an electron microscope. Marton had constructed an electron microscope in Brussels as early as 1934, using it regularly in his own research; and he built upon this experience to develop a new instrument at RCA that was operating by early 1940. Because Marton's model was not practical for commercial production, Zworykin brought James Hillier from Toronto to help develop a new model, Model B, which became the prototype for the first commercial electron microscopes made by RCA.

During the first few months of Anderson's work at RCA, Marton's microscope was the only one available, but Hillier's microscope was ready by Spring of 1941, and toward the end of the two years, Hillier had built an even more sophisticated microscope. Using these instruments, Anderson studied bacteria with Stuart Mudd and Katherine Polevitzky, viruses with Wendell M. Stanley, insect structures with A. Glenn Richards, Jr., and bacteriophages with Salvador E. Luria. For the first time, scientists were able to identify and measure a wide range of viruses and molecules.

Anderson soon devoted the majority of his time to bacteriophages, later describing them as "the most interesting" systems available, and presenting the "greatest challenge." Bacteriophages, he wrote, were "viruses of complex morphology that could be accurately assayed and whose interactions with their host cells could be studied directly in the electron microscope," offering not only the opportunity to advance the study of microscopic organisms, but proving the value of the new instrumentation.{1} More than thirty papers resulted from Anderson's two years of work at RCA, and his successes earned him a reputation as an evangelist for the electron microscope, as well as an innovator.{2} In the summer of 1942, he introduced many scientists to electron microscopy with a Model B at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

During the fall of 1942, Anderson became an Associate at the Johnson Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania. Under Leslie A. Chambers, he continued his research on the physiology and structure of bacterial viruses using the seventh instrument to be produced by RCA, a type EMB electron microscope that had been purchased with funds donated by the American Philosophical Society in 1940. The Johnson Foundation purchased a Japanese microscope in 1957 to supplement the RCA model.

Rising to Assistant Professor of Biophysics in 1946, Anderson continued to refine electron microscopic techniques, developing the "critical point method" in 1949 to address the problems posed by the surface tension of the water droplet that contained the specimen to be studied. As the droplet dried, researchers found, surface tension distorted the image of the specimen. Anderson reasoned that he could reduce surface tension by raising the temperature of the water to its critical point (374° C) until the boundary between liquid and gas disappeared. In practice, however, he found that specimens could not withstand the heat required, and he therefore explored the possibility of substituting carbon dioxide as a mounting medium, which has a lower critical point (40° C). Heating a specimen of onion skin to 40° C, he commented that "the bone dry tissue and cells look as good as the fresh onion skin on a control slide!"{3}

In 1950, Anderson was promoted to Associate Professor of Biophysics, and then in 1958, Professor. In that same year, he also became a Senior Member of the Institute for Cancer Research in Fox Chase, in the meantime, spending two years as a Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellow at the Institut Pasteur (1955-1957). It was there that he took a series of astonishing electron micrographs of male bacteria transferring genes to females, which became staple illustrations in scientific textbooks for many years. In 1976, Anderson became Senior Member Emeritus for one year, after which he returned as Senior Member. He returned to emeritus status in 1983.

Anderson's professional commitments were numerous. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences (elected 1964), the Biophysical Society (President 1965-1966), the Electron Microscope Society of America (President, 1955), the International Federation of Electron Microscope Societies (President, 1959-1963), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Elektronenmikroscopie, the International Organization for Pure and Applied Biophysics, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was an honorary member of the Société Française de Microscopie Électronique, and received the Institut Pasteur's Silver Medal in 1957, and the Electron Microscope Society of America's Distinguished Award in 1978.

He served as Chairman of the United States National Committee of the International Union for Pure and Applied Biophysics (1965-1968); on the International Committee on Nomenclature of Viruses from (1968-1971); and as a member of the Executive Committee of the Commission on Subcellular Biophysics of the International Union for Pure and Applied Biophysics (1971-1976). He also served as Chair of the Genetics Section of the National Academy of Sciences from 1985 to 1988.

Anderson was Associate Editor of Biophysical Journal from 1960 to 1966; Associate Editor of Virology from 1960 to 1966; on the editorial board of Bacteriological Reviews from 1967 to 1969; and on the editorial board of Intervirology from 1972 to 1985.

He died on August 11, 1991, survived by his wife, Wilma Ecton Anderson, his son, Thomas F. Anderson, Jr., and his daughter, Jessie Dale Anderson

From the guide to the Thomas Foxen Anderson Papers, 1928-1989, (American Philosophical Society)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Cohen, Seymour S. (Seymour Stanley), 1917-. Papers, 1938-1990. American Philosophical Society Library
referencedIn Seymour S. Cohen Papers, 1938-1990 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn Salvador E. Luria Papers, 1923-1992 American Philosophical Society
creatorOf Thomas Foxen Anderson Papers, 1928-1989 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn Luria, S. E. (Salvador Edward), 1912-1991. Papers, 1931-1992. American Philosophical Society Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
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associatedWith Walker, Donald H., Jr. person
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associatedWith Walker, Donald H., Jr., author and Thomas F. Anderson, supervisor person
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associatedWith Yost, Don M. person
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Place Name Admin Code Country
Radiation--Physiological effect
Viral genetics
Electron microscopy
Bacterial genetics
Raman spectroscopy


Birth 1911-02-07

Death 1991-08-11



Ark ID: w6tf4m5z

SNAC ID: 30215182