Elizabeth U Baranger

Elizabeth Urey Baranger (born Gertrude Bessie Urey) (09/18/1927 – 05/30/2019) was an American theoretical physicist and senior administrator at the University of Pittsburgh.

Early life

Baranger was the eldest of four, born to Frieda and Harold Urey (famed chemist and Nobel laureate). As a child, she met many famous scientists who were colleagues of her father’s. In particular, she later cited Maria Mayer (Nobel Laureate in Physics) as an early role model, “She gave the impression that being a theoretical physicist and a mother was possible, rewarding, and worth a great deal” [1]. Encouraged by her father, she pursued a career in STEM, receiving her BA in mathematics from Swarthmore College in 1949 (Phi Beta Kappa) [2]. In college, she was active in the Mathematics Club, lead community service efforts, and played lacrosse as well as the violin [3-7].

Junior-year Swarthmore Yearbook student profile (1948) [6].


Baranger went on to receive her PhD in physics from Cornell University in 1954 [2]. Her thesis was titled “Scattering of High-Energy Electrons by Heavy Nuclei” [8], and was supervised by Hans Bethe (Nobel Laureate in Physics). While at Cornell she met Michel Baranger, also a theoretical physicist, whom she later married. Baranger briefly worked as a research associate at the California Institute of Technology [2], and then took a position as a professor in the physics department at the University of Pittsburgh in 1955 (Michel took a position at the neighboring Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University [9]). Baranger was the second woman to be hired by the University of Pittsburgh physics department [2].

Baranger and husband, Michel, with her father Harold Urey, and two sons, Martin and Harold (The Pittsburgh Press, 12/28/1960)

During this time Baranger researched the nuclear shell model [1]. In 1972 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described Baranger as “a major contributor to the theory of nuclear shell structures” [10].

In 1975 she was elected as a councillor-at-large of the American Physical Society (APS), in what was called “one of the most closely contested elections in the last 75 years” [11]. In 1985 Baranger was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) [12], a distinction which recognizes those “whose efforts on behalf of the advancement of science or its applications are scientifically or socially distinguished” [13]. In 1987 Baranger was named a ‘Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania’ by then governor Robert Casey [14].

Dr. Baranger lectures on quantum mechanics (The Pittsburgh Press, 2/22/1958).

In 1969 Baranger and her husband both accepted positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) [2]. Upon their divorce in 1973, Baranger returned to the University of Pittsburgh with their three children, Martin, Harold, and Anne-Michelle (Michel remained at MIT for the rest of his career [9]).


Back in Pittsburgh, Baranger began her career as a senior administrator at the University of Pittsburgh. From 1973-1989 she served first as Associate Dean, and then Dean, of graduate studies for Arts and Sciences , and from 1989-2004 she served as Vice Provost for graduate studies [15]. While she was not the first woman to be appointed to the position of Dean, it was rare enough that multiple news outlets across country covered the story. The Wisconsin Rapids Tribune ran the headline “Dean Wears Skirts” [16].

Dean Elizabeth Baranger (1973)

As an administrator at the University of Pittsburgh, Baranger worked to improve standards of education and quality of life. She helped establish minimum standards for graduate degrees, including a requirement for an external evaluator on defense committees, and placed a time-limit on how long a PhD can take (10 years) [17,18]. Baranger similarly worked to establish guidelines for postdoctoral training [19] and aided in the creation of the University of Pittsburgh Postdoctoral Association (UPPDA) – she was awarded the first UPPDA Postdoctoral Advocate Award at the inaugural ‘Data and Dine Symposium’ in 2003 [20]. Her efforts to improve the quality of life at Pitt extended to faculty and staff as well, she assisted in a proposal to increase the amount of family leave offered, though those policies were not implemented until after her retirement [21].


When she was a junior faculty member, Baranger noticed that girls were discouraged from being interested in science [22], and that many of her peers in college did not have any career aspirations beyond “getting married and having five children” [23]. Even though she did not consider herself a “very active feminist” [22], these realizations prompted Baranger to begin what she would later describe as “the quiet pressuring I felt I was supposed to do to make things better” [24].

In 1971 Baranger was a co-founder of the Boston-based Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) [25], alongside Vera Kistiakowsky and Vera Pless, which later became the Boston chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). Out of AWIS came the Federation of Organizations for Professional Women (FOPW) – Baranger represented the American Physical Society at the organizational meeting in 1972 [25]. FOPW was instrumental in shaping what eventually became the National Science Foundation Authorization and Science and Technology Equal Opportunities Act, which was signed into law in 1980. The law declares that “it is the policy of the United States that men and women have equal opportunity in education, training and employment in scientific and technical fields” [26].

In 1976 Baranger presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the ‘Admission and Attrition of Women in Graduate School’ [27], which found that less funding, poor mentorship, and familial responsibilities drove more women to drop-out of PhD programs than men. “It means that a human resource of the nation is untapped and under-utilized [27].”

Baranger in her office, 1986

As a member of the American Physical Society (APS), she served on several committees, including the committee on the Status of Women in Physics and on the Panel on Faculty Positions for Women [28]. Baranger also served as a member of the APS Panel on Public Affairs in 1979, which recommended that the society boycott holding it’s annual meeting in States which did not support the Equal Rights Amendment [29]. APS passed the resolution.

In 1982 Baranger co-authored a report for APS on the representation of women among the faculty of physics departments in American universities [30]. The report found that, of faculty (Associate, Assistant, or Full Professor), only 1.9% were women (79 of 4,176), and only six departments (of 171) had two or more women. The report prompted the president of APS, Arthur L. Schawlow, to write physics departments across the country, deploring the “under representation of women in the profession of physics” and offering assistance in identifying candidates for senior roles. The report also spurred APS to create the aforementioned Panel on Faculty Positions for Women Physicists, which Baranger served on.

Baranger engaged in community outreach as well, encouraging women to pursue careers in science. She gave public lectures at universities on the status of women in science and being a professional woman with a family [31], and spoke at local high schools on career opportunities for women [32]. As part of this effort, she gave talks on the life and work of Maria Goeppert Mayer, including how Goeppert Mayer influenced her life and career [35].

Named Awards

The University of Pittsburgh has two awards named for Elizabeth Baranger. The ‘Elizabeth Baranger Teaching Award’ ‘acknowledges excellence in graduate student teaching’ [33]. The ‘Elizabeth U. Baranger Pre-Doctoral Fellowship’ is awarded ‘to incoming female students of exceptional ability and promise who wish to enter the University in a PhD program in one of the following departments: Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy, and Statistics’ [34].

Elizabeth Baranger (2019)


  1. Baranger EU, The present status of the nuclear shell model. Physics Today 26, 6, 34 (1973); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.3128095
  2. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette · May 31, 2004 · Page 25 ‘NEWSMAKER: Elizabeth Baranger / Pioneering woman professor at Pitt shuns spotlight’ https://www.post-gazette.com/uncategorized/2004/05/31/NEWSMAKER-Elizabeth-Baranger-Pioneering-woman-professor-at-Pitt-shuns-spotlight/stories/200405310108
  3. Swarthmore College The Phoenix, November 28, 1945 ‘WSGA Selects New Members; Reveal Choices’ http://triptych.brynmawr.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/SC_Phoenix/id/11478/rec/3
  4. Swarthmore College The Phoenix, May 3, 1946 Committee Reveals New Plan for Sending Food Boxes to Aid Starving Europeans’ http://triptych.brynmawr.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/SC_Phoenix/id/11555/rec/1
  5. Swarthmore College The Phoenix, January 16, 1947 ‘Council Appoints New Committees’ http://triptych.brynmawr.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/SC_Phoenix/id/11638/rec/1
  6. Swarthmore College The Halycon 1949 (1947 – 1948), pgs 78 & 142. http://triptych.brynmawr.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/SC_Halcyon/id/26359/rec/67
  7. Swarthmore College The Halycon 1950 (1948 – 1949), pgs 89 & 137. http://triptych.brynmawr.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/SC_Halcyon/id/26546/rec/68
  8. Baranger EU, Scattering of High-Energy Electrons by Heavy Nuclei. Phys. Rev. 93, 1127 (1954); https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRev.93.1127
  9. MIT Department of Physics, MICHEL BARANGER; Professor of Physics, Emeritus; In Memoriam: July 31, 1927 – October 1, 2014. http://web.mit.edu/physics/people/faculty/baranger_michel.html Accessed 6/1/2019
  10. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 11 1972, ‘Pitt Names Female Prof Arts Dean’. http://www.newspapers.com/image/88842133/
  11. Election Winners: Pake, Baranger, Vineyard, and Werthamer. Physics Today 28, 3, 67 (1975); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.3068894
  12. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette · Sat, Jun 15, 1985. ‘Group Elects Pitt Dean’. http://www.newspapers.com/image/90326292/
  13. https://www.aaas.org/programs/fellows/process Accessed 6/1/2019
  14. The Times-Tribune · Fri, Oct 23, 1987 https://www.newspapers.com/image/530861089
  15. University of Pittsburgh Department of Physics and Astronomy ‘Elizabeth Baranger; Professor Emeritus’ https://www.physicsandastronomy.pitt.edu/people/elizabeth-baranger Accessed 6/1/2019
  16. The Daily Tribune · Tue, Feb 27, 1973 ‘Dean Wears Skirts’ https://www.newspapers.com/image/42240001/
  17. University of Pittsburgh University Times, September 25, 2003, ‘Baranger plans to retire after 44 years at Pitt’ https://www.utimes.pitt.edu/archives/?p=42587 Paragraph
  18. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette · Sat, Sep 26, 1987, ‘ Academic Limbo Plagues PhD Students’ https://www.newspapers.com/image/89564372
  19. University of Pittsburgh University Times, February 21, 2002, ‘University post-doctoral fellows struggle against “outsider” status’ https://www.utimes.pitt.edu/archives/?p=2230
  20. University of Pittsburgh University Times, July 6, 2006, ‘People of the Times’ https://www.utimes.pitt.edu/archives/?p=512
  21. University of Pittsburgh University Times, September 25, 2008, ‘Letter to the Editor’ https://www.utimes.pitt.edu/archives/?p=6620
  22. The Pittsburgh Press · Wed, Jan 24, 1973 ‘Theoretical Physicist Turns Practical’ https://www.newspapers.com/image/147521003/
  23. [23] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette · Mon, Jun 24, 1985, ‘Womanpower vital scientific resource’ https://www.newspapers.com/image/90327548
  24. Swarthmore College Bulletin, December 2004, pg 22, ‘High Standards’ https://bulletin.swarthmore.edu/bulletin-issue-archive/wp-content/archived_issues_pdf/Bulletin_2004_12.pdf
  25. Laura Micheletti Puaca, ‘Searching for Scientific Womanpower: Technocratic Feminism and the Politics of National Security, 1940-1980’. UNC Press Books, 2014 https://books.google.com/books?id=84RgAwAAQBAJ
  26. S.568 – National Science Foundation Authorization and Science and Technology Equal Opportunities Act https://www.congress.gov/bill/96th-congress/senate-bill/568
  27. Baranger EU, ‘Admission and Attrition of Women in Graduate School’, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Boston, Massachusetts, February 22-23, 1976) https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED135609.pdf
  28. Robert R. Wilson elected vice‐president for 1983, Physics Today 36, 1, 97 (1983); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.2915466
  29. Summary of APS action on ERA, Physics Today 32, 7, 12 (1979); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.2995610
  30. Survey of universities finds few women on senior staff, Physics Today 35, 2, 99 (1982); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.2914956
  31. Women in Science: prof to tell what it means. The Daily Utah Chronicle · Wed, May 15, 1974 https://www.newspapers.com/image/430062231
  32. The Pittsburgh Press · Thu, Mar 17, 1977 · Page 74 https://www.newspapers.com/image/147206768/
  33. University of Pittsburgh Arts & Science Graduate Students Organization – Teaching Awards – Elizabeth Baranger Teaching Award. https://pre.asgso.pitt.edu/awards-and-grants/teaching-awards/ Accessed 6/2/2019
  34. University of Pittsburgh Department of Physics & Astronomy – Fellowships & Awards – Elizabeth U. Baranger Pre-Doctoral Fellowship – https://www.physicsandastronomy.pitt.edu/graduate/financial-assistance/fellowships-awards Accessed 6/2/2019
  35. Maria Goeppert Mayer: The 50th Anniversary of Her Nobel Prize. APS Physics, Forum on the History of Physics. https://www.aps.org/units/fhp/newsletters/fall2013/mayer.cfm, Accessed 6/9/2019

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