Obituary: Morton Kaplan / CMU professor nurtured a generation of scientists

Nov. 21, 1933 - Sept. 19, 2013

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As a gifted research scientist, Morton "Mort" Kaplan loved analyzing the collision of nuclear particles, nurturing graduate students and strumming his mandolin during duets with his wife, Sandra, who played the five-string banjo.

A dark-haired, brown-eyed man with a dry wit and reassuring presence, Mr. Kaplan taught a generation of nuclear chemists.

"I've never met anyone who was so completely selfless with respect to teaching, getting people to understand things and allowing them to go on their own and do what they need to do," said Dave Moses, who did his doctoral dissertation with Mr. Kaplan and is executive director of the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center.

Mr. Kaplan, a professor of nuclear chemistry for 38 years at Carnegie Mellon University, died Thursday at his Mt. Lebanon home. He was 79 and had been diagnosed with dementia in 2006.

In 1980, Mr. Moses was a 28-year-old graduate student from Parkersburg, W.Va., when he arrived at CMU. Six months later, he joined Mr. Kaplan on a trip to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, where they conducted research with a team from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"It's very complicated science and I was concerned that I wasn't going to be able to understand these complicated concepts. These experiments required setting up hundreds of detectors in these chambers and amplifiers. When we got there and I came face-to-face with all this stuff, I said, 'I don't know if I'm going to be able to understand all of this.' "

Mr. Kaplan replied quietly, "Let me tell you something. In three years, you're going to be explaining this stuff to me."

That remark, from the man who became his mentor, "gave me the greatest boost of self-confidence that I've ever had," Mr. Moses said.

The eldest son of Russian immigrants who met and married in the United States, Mr. Kaplan grew up on Chicago's West Side in a largely Jewish neighborhood. His father sold paint and his mother was a clerk at a dry cleaners. His interest in science was piqued when he learned about the Manhattan Project, which developed the world's first atomic bombs during World War II.

At age 15, he left Lane Technical High School and enrolled in the University of Chicago's early entrance program. While earning a bachelor's degree, he competed on the school's baseball and swim teams. He went on to obtain a master's degree in chemistry at the university.

"My father was a very light-hearted man. He never showed off his intellect," said his son, David Kaplan, who lives in Honesdale in northeastern Pennsylvania's Wayne County.

"He loved to make plays on words and puns and loved to make other people smile."

Mr. Kaplan met his wife on a blind date. They shared a love for the water, education and Appalachian folk music. They were the first couple in Chicago to obtain a marriage license in January 1957.

At age 22, Mr. Kaplan enrolled in a doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Paul Karol, a retired nuclear chemist who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., worked with Mr. Kaplan at CMU for 40 years. He said it was an interesting coincidence that his colleague's mentors at MIT had helped build a secret nuclear reactor underneath the University of Chicago's football stadium during the 1940s. When Mr. Kaplan studied at MIT, the school's nuclear program was led by Charles Coryell, who had worked on the Manhattan Project.

Mr. Kaplan continued playing music throughout his career. With his fellow students, he formed a group called The Outhouse Five, his son said.

Four years later, Mr. Kaplan did post-doctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley. There, he worked with the school's chancellor, Glenn Seaborg, who became the first director of the Atomic Energy Commission.

In 1962, he joined Yale's chemistry faculty. In 1970, he was recruited by CMU. The following year he took a one-year sabbatical at Oxford University's Clarendon Laboratory.

During the 1990s, Mr. Kaplan conducted research at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he served as the only chemist on the STAR executive committee; later, he was deputy council chairman of the STAR Collaboration. He retired from CMU in 2008.

Mrs. Kaplan said the couple loved to relax at a summer home on Lake Erie. "When I would take the Sunfish out, he would give me two hours of sailing before he came looking for me in a motorboat to make sure I was all right," she said. "That was the reassuring, sweet part of him."

Besides his son and wife, Mr. Kaplan is survived by a daughter, Susan, an English teacher who lives in Kamakura, Japan; a brother, Sherwin of Young Harris, Ga.; and two granddaughters.

A service will be held today at 1:30 p.m. in Temple Emanuel in Mt. Lebanon.

Memorials may be made to the Anti-Defamation League.


Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.

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