The late experimental nuclear physicist William Rodman (Rod) Smythe (BS ’51, MS ’52, PhD ’57) lived life according to a distinctive ethos. First, he believed that problems worth solving were those that could fit into an equation. Second, if something worked for his father, then it could work for him, too.
Guided by these principles, he determined that it made sense for him to attend Caltech. As an undergraduate studying electrical engineering, he was surrounded by analytic minds—including his father’s. William Ralph Smythe, a longtime Caltech physics professor, was known for offering some of the school’s most challenging classes.
Over the course of his four-decade career at Caltech, Ralph Smythe, as he was known by friends and family, taught many esteemed scholars, including Nobel laureates Carl Anderson (BS ’27, PhD ’30), Edwin McMillan (BS ’28, MS ’29), and Charles Townes (PhD ’39). He also taught his own son. Although Rod never divulged the grade he received in his father’s class, he assured his daughter Stephanie Smythe that he passed. Not flunking was an accomplishment in itself.
“Grandpa was a role model for my father,” Stephanie says. She notes that it was not unusual for her father to select an investment adviser, a retirement home, or even a camping trip based on his father’s choices. “My dad never articulated it in this way, but I think there was always a piece of him that wanted his father’s approval.”
Still, Rod was his own person. As a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, he helped build the school’s particle accelerator. The cyclotron, which causes particles to spiral at fast speeds and high energy levels, was used by researchers for more than 25 years. He also had an adventurous streak. He hiked, went mountain climbing, and flew airplanes well into his retirement, Stephanie says.
William Ralph Smythe, Caltech professor of physics from 1923 to 1964
As the son of a faculty member, Rod received free tuition after qualifying for admission at Caltech. He saved more money by opting to live with his parents in Sierra Madre instead of in student housing.
“It did not cost him anything to attend a premier educational institution,” Stephanie says. “But he understood the challenges associated with paying for college when he had children and grandchildren.”
Rod provided generously for his children’s education and was committed to ensuring that others, too, enjoyed access to higher learning. In 2000, he used his inheritance to establish the William Ralph Smythe Scholarship at Caltech in honor of his father. After Rod died in 2020, his bequest bolstered funding for the scholarship.
As an endowed fund, the Smythe Scholarship will support generations of students and help Caltech continue to attract bright and hardworking young people. Currently, more than half of Caltech undergraduates receive financial assistance.
“It takes a lot to make it at Caltech,” Stephanie says. “Students need to show the drive, the skill, and the interest. My father created the scholarship to remove obstacles for these talented students. He wanted to make sure they would not be limited by lack of funds.”