Edwin Goldwasser, a physicist who co-founded the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., and helped build one of the world’s most powerful particle accelerators, died on Dec. 14 at his home in Urbana, Ill. He was 97.
His death was confirmed by his niece Ruth W. Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president.
Dr. Goldwasser, who was long associated with the University of Illinois, helped pioneer the use of powerful particle accelerators in American physics. By smashing subatomic particles together at high energies, the machines deepen scientists’ understanding of the most fundamental aspects of nature.
He was named deputy director of what was then the National Accelerator Laboratory in 1967 and given the task of constructing the most powerful accelerator in the world on farmland outside Chicago. The lab, which would later be known as Fermilab after the physicist Enrico Fermi, began operations in 1972.
“His biggest impact was Fermilab — creating the most forward-looking laboratory of its day in the United States,” said Barry Barish, a physicist who performed experiments in the early days of Fermilab before becoming the director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Dr. Goldwasser worked with the lab’s director, Robert Wilson, a prominent physicist from Cornell. Together, they made Fermilab a leader not only in scientific advancements but also in fostering scientific collaborations.
Dr. Goldwasser helped set the tone for the laboratory as a place where researchers from all over the world could work and converse together.
During the Cold War, he helped encourage a friendly rivalry with the Soviet Union, but he was not afraid to stand up to the Soviets when they invited only half the recommended number of Israeli scientists to an international conference in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Dr. Goldwasser threatened to cancel American participation, which would have been embarrassing for the Soviet physicists. They ultimately backed down and invited the full Israeli roster.
In an interview with The News-Gazette of Champaign, Ill., Dr. Goldwasser recalled that on his arrival in Tbilisi, he was summoned by the head of the Soviet commission. “You won this time,” he said the official had told him, “but don’t try it again.”
In a phone interview, Chris Quigg, a theoretical physicist at Fermilab who worked with Dr. Goldwasser, called him “a remarkably responsible citizen, a builder of institutions and a person who cared about creating opportunities for others.”
“He was planting other people’s gardens,” Dr. Quigg said.
Edwin Leo Goldwasser, who was known as Ned, was born on March 9, 1919, in Manhattan, the son of Israel Edwin Goldwasser and the former Edith Goldstein. His parents, who had once worked in the New York City school system, sent Dr. Goldwasser to the private Horace Mann School in the Bronx, after which he attended Harvard to study physics. He graduated in 1940.
During his time at Harvard, he met Liza Weiss, a freshman at Vassar at the time. The two had grown up within 10 blocks of each other on the west side of Manhattan but had never met, The News-Gazette reported. Their first date was on Sept. 1, 1939, the day World War II erupted in Europe. The next year, they began a 76-year marriage. She survives him.
During the war, Dr. Goldwasser worked as a civilian physicist with the Navy in San Francisco Bay, where he helped degauss ships — installing electromagnetic upgrades to protect them from being blown up by German magnetic mines.
He later entered graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, to study cosmic ray particles and earned his doctorate in 1950. Invited to join the faculty, he decided against doing so after several professors resigned to protest the state’s McCarthy-era requirement that they take an anti-Communist loyalty oath.
He instead took a position at the University of Illinois, on its Urbana-Champaign campus, working in nuclear physics as a research associate. He eventually became a full professor and wrote several textbooks before taking a leave of absence in 1967 to become deputy director of what would become Fermilab.
He returned to the university in 1978 as vice chancellor for research and dean of the graduate college. He was later named vice chancellor for academic affairs.
In 1986, he took another leave to help design the Superconducting Super Collider, a particle accelerator that would have been the most powerful machine on Earth. The accelerator, which would have been built in Texas, was never completed after Congress canceled funding for it in 1993.
Dr. Goldwasser returned to the University of Illinois in 1988 and retired in 1990. During his time on campus, he was often seen swimming, playing tennis and riding his bicycle.
Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Kathy Goldwasser; four sons, Michael, John, Davey and Ricky; and seven grandchildren.
One of Dr. Goldwasser’s earliest victories at Fermilab came on March 1, 1972, when the team successfully accelerated a beam of hydrogen atoms to 200 billion electron volts, or 200 GeV, the highest acceleration ever produced at the time, and nearly three times as high as the closest Soviet machine.
For his achievement, Dr. Goldwasser received a gift of Chianti wine, the same brand with which Enrico Fermi and his team celebrated when they created the first controlled nuclear reaction in 1942. They drank it along with Champagne, which they poured into plastic goblets labeled “200 GeV.”