Charles Townes Furman University

Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, Greenville native and a 1935 graduate of Furman University, died Tuesday. He was 99.

Arguably Greenville’s most illustrious citizen, Dr. Townes received the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for his pioneering work in the development of the maser and laser. A book published in 1999 titled “1000 years, 1000 people,” ranked Dr. Townes 819 on a list of the 1,000 most important people of the millennium. The first five were Gutenberg, Columbus, Martin Luther, Galileo and Shakespeare. Those failing to make the cut included John Kennedy, William Gates and Ronald Reagan.

“The Furman community has lost a giant today,” said Furman President Elizabeth Davis. “Charles Townes' scientific explorations and path-breaking discoveries changed our world in wondrous ways, and new uses of the technology are unfolding even today. He represented the very best that Furman offers to the world—an individual of rare intelligence and unbounded curiosity, the courage to explore the unknown, the wisdom to serve humankind, an abiding faith that sustained him, and a generosity that has enriched each new generation of students here.”

During a celebrated career that has spanned eight decades Dr. Townes has served on the faculty at Columbia, MIT and the University of California at Berkeley. He has counseled presidents, was a key NASA advisor during the Apollo mission and holds more than two dozen honorary degrees and a trove of awards and honors.

In spite of his international acclaim and celebrity, Dr. Townes remained true to his Greenville roots and enduring faith. Though Dr. Townes and his longtime wife, Frances, lived in California, they visited the Upstate regularly where he once served as a member of the Furman Board of Trustees. Tributes to Dr. Townes grace Furman’s campus. The most visible is the  Charles H. Townes Science Center, a $62.5 million facility that houses all of the University’s science departments, that was named in his honor in 2008. The Charles H. Townes Lecture Series in Faith in Reason was launched in 2006 with endowed gifts from the John Templeton Foundation and Dr. Townes. The series, held annually, highlights the common ground between science and religion. The Charles H. Townes Scholarship, which provides $25,000 per year in scholarship aid with a $1,000 stipend to study abroad and a $1,500 summer internship or research stipend, is also awarded to a handful of students each year.

Memorials may be made to the Charles H. Townes Lectureship or Henry Keith and Ellen Hard Townes Professorship. Please mail to Development Department, Furman University, 3300 Poinsett Highway, Greenville, SC 29613. For more information, call 864-294-3491.

Read the full story

  • Townes taught at MIT and the University of California
    Townes taught at MIT and the University of California
  • Townes
    Townes' work on the maser led to the invention of the laser
  • Charles Townes accepts the Nobel Prize
    Charles Townes accepts the Nobel Prize
  • Charles Townes
    Charles Townes

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