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Physicist John Schmidt, designer of cutting-edge fusion facilities, dies at 72

Physicist John Schmidt, whose profound and wide-ranging contributions to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) made him a highly respected leader in the worldwide quest for fusion energy, died on February 13 following a brain hemorrhage. He was 72.

Schmidt won wide acclaim for heading the design of cutting-edge facilities for magnetic fusion research during a 36-year career at PPPL, from which he retired in 2005. As interim director in 1996 he led the Laboratory’s successful transition from large, fusion power-producing experiments such as the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR) to smaller and less expensive magnetic facilities, including the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX), the major fusion device at PPPL today.

Schmidt’s unruffled performance as interim director brought to mind lines from the Rudyard Kipling poem “If,” which is addressed to the person “who can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”

“John’s seminal contributions to fusion science and technology can only be described in superlative terms,” said Ronald Davidson, who directed PPPL from 1991 to 1996. “His remarkable leadership skills and technical acumen played a critical role in shaping research programs at the Laboratory for several decades. He will be sorely missed by his many friends and colleagues at PPPL and in the Princeton community."

Schmidt was known to be as personable as he was scientifically astute. “His calm, steady hand, dry wit and thoroughly considered judgment made him someone people really enjoyed working with,” said retired PPPL physicist Dale Meade, whose relationship with Schmidt dated back to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where both men earned their doctorates.

Former PPPL Director Robert Goldston worked for Schmidt when the Laboratory was looking at designs for various experimental facilities. “As a manager, John brought crisp scientific and engineering insight to every problem—from which we all learned,” said Goldston, who headed PPPL from 1997 to 2009. “As a leader, he brought composure and kindness—from which we all benefitted.”

Upon arriving at PPPL, Schmidt led the design of controls for the Floating Multipole Experiment, one of the most advanced superconducting plasma confinement systems of its day. He subsequently became the first head of the physics group for TFTR, which set world records for producing plasma heat and fusion power while operating from 1982 to 1997.

Schmidt’s accomplishments were felt overseas. As head of the Applied Physics Division at PPPL in the 1980s, he played a key role on an international team that developed a conceptual design for a fusion power plant called INTOR. While that concept was never built, it laid the foundation for the design of ITER, the huge international fusion facility now under construction in France.

Schmidt later headed the Advanced Projects Department at PPPL, where he nurtured a series of nascent projects through their incubation period. These included NSTX and the National Compact Stellarator Experiment (NCSX), an innovative fusion facility that successfully installed some of the most complex electromagnets ever designed before construction of the project halted in 2009. Also launched on Schmidt’s watch was collaboration between the Laboratory and South Korea on the design of K-STAR, an advanced fusion device that began operating in South Korea in 2008.

A native of South Dakota, Schmidt earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of South Dakota, and his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1969. When not designing fusion facilities he was enthusiastically engaged in fishing, cross-country skiing, rooting for the New York Yankees and honing his skills as a master cabinet maker. He is survived by his wife, Helen Wise, and his son Michael. 

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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