89-Year-Old Earns the PhD in Physics He Dreamed of Decades Ago

You are never too old to achieve your dreams. This is the message 89-year-old Manfred Steiner wants young people to take from his most recent achievement. A distinguished professor of medicine who already held two doctorate degrees, Steiner always dreamed of studying physics. His dream was deferred by World War II, medical school, and ample research, but he never lost sight of his passion for the field. Now, at 89 years old, Steiner has graduated with his PhD in Physics from Brown University.

Steiner grew up in Vienna, Austria. His teen years were disrupted by the chaos of war. While the young man knew he wanted to study physics, the displacement of war and the economy of the 1950s convinced his family that medicine was the better path. Steiner followed their wishes and obtained his M.D. in 1955 from the University of Vienna. He soon immigrated to the United States where he studied hematology at Tufts University and biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received his second doctorate, a PhD in biochemistry from MIT in 1967.

In 1968, Steiner became an assistant professor at Brown University's medical school, now known as the Warren Alpert Medical School. He spent decades at Brown, training the next cadre of elite doctors and researchers. In 1994, he left Brown for a stint of research in North Carolina. Steiner retired in 2000, returning to Rhode Island with some time on his hands. Throughout his time in medicine, he had not forgotten his passion for physics. He attended lectures where he could. “Physics was always a part of me,” he said in a statement, “and when I retired from medicine and I was approaching age 70, I decided to enter the world of physics.”

Steiner began taking classes in 2000—a few per semester as his health allowed. He initially began coursework at MIT, but switched to Brown to avoid the commute to Boston. Eventually, he had accumulated enough physics undergraduate credits for admittance to the graduate program. He found an advisor, Professor Brad Marston, and set to work on a difficult project. Steiner studied bosonization, a process which effects the smallest particles of our universe. Despite being an octogenarian, he says everyone was friendly and welcoming, from professors to (much younger) fellow students.

Steiner was finally able to defend his dissertation, entitled, “Corrections to the Geometrical Interpretation of Bosonization.” Successful in his defense, Steiner earned his third PhD only a few weeks away from his 90th birthday. His lifelong love of physics kept his brain sharp, he says. “I do not really regret it now,” he says of his career in medicine. “It was a good life and I made many great friends. It felt very good, particularly after I got my PhD and worked in academic medicine. But physics always lurked in the background.”

While three doctorates might be enough to make any academic rest on their ivy-covered laurels, Steiner intends to rework his dissertation for publication and to continue his theoretical research. “It is important not to waste your older days,” he insists. “There is a lot of brainpower in older people and I think it can be of enormous benefit to younger generations.”

89-year-old Manfred Steiner earned his PhD in physics, a lifetime goal which is also his third doctorate degree.

h/t: [NPR, Brown University]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and reading while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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