Friday, December 17, 2021

Russell Hobbie (1934–2021)

Russell Hobbie
Russell Hobbie
I am heartbroken to have to tell you that Russ Hobbie, my coauthor and friend, passed away this week, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Russ was the sole author on the first three editions of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, and was the senior author with me on the fourth and fifth editions.

Below are excerpts from Russ’s preface to the first edition, describing how he came to write IPMB.
Between 1971 and 1973 I audited all of the courses medical students take in their first two years at the University of Minnesota. I was amazed at the amount of physics I found in those courses and how little of it is discussed in the general physics course.

I found a great discrepancy between the physics in some papers in the biological research literature and what I knew to be the level of understanding of most biology majors who had taken a year of physics. It was clear that an intermediate level physics course would help these students. It would provide the physics they needed and would relate it directly to the biological problems where it is useful. Making the connection with biology is something that we tend to leave for the student. When we do that, I think we overestimate the ability of most students to see the application and work out the details. Seeing few applications is also a powerful motivation for mastering difficult material.

This book is the result of my having taught such a course since 1973. It is intended to serve as a text for an intermediate course taught in a physics department and taken by a variety of majors… 

Here is a list from Google Scholar of some of his publications.

First ten listings in the Google Scholar entry for Russ Hobbie.
First ten listings in the Google Scholar entry for Russ Hobbie.

His most highly cited publication, by far, was IPMB (all editions are combined into one citation score). His most highly cited research article was a 2010 paper that he coauthored with his daughter Sarah. Some of the figures in that paper found their way, with slight modifications, into the 5th edition of IPMB: exponential decay assuming constant error bars (Fig. 2.6 in IPMB) or a constant percentage error bars (Fig. 2.7). He has articles going back to 1960, and the most recent edition of IPMB was in 2015, implying an amazing 55 year publication history. His earliest papers in nuclear physics were published during his time at the Harvard cyclotron laboratory

You can learn more about Russ by reading the transcript of his 1994 interview as part of an oral history project at the University of Minnesota. Some excerpts:

I grew up as a college brat. My parents both taught at Skidmore College in upstate New York. I was born in 1934. One of my earliest recollections is at age three or four falling in the college fishpond and being fished out by some of the Skidmore students. My father taught physics there...
[My high school had] a standard college preparatory course except that they had machine shop and mechanical drawing. I don’t know how I decided it, but I decided that I wanted to go to college at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], which I did and I thoroughly enjoyed that experience. I liked Cambridge so much that I wanted to stay in Cambridge. Everybody told me that I ought to change schools for graduate school; so, I went up the river to Harvard as a graduate student...
[At Harvard] my TA [teaching assistant] assignment was to work with Ed[ward Mills] Purcell, who is a Nobel Prize winning physicist, a very wonderful and humble person, redesigning the junior electricity and magnetism lab. That was a very great experience...

I became an RA [research assistant] at the Harvard cyclotron and drifted into doing my thesis in experimental nuclear physics on the cyclotron. I took my final Ph.D. oral exam on April Fool's Day in 1960, which means that I had done my Ph.D. in slightly under four years because I graduated from college in 1956...

I had met my wife [Cynthia], a public health nurse, in Boston. She had grown up in Iowa, had gone to the University of Iowa, and had then come out to work for the Visiting Nurses’ Association. She had some interest in moving closer to her home and I had seen this about Minnesota...
I got out here [an interview at the University of Minnesota] and discovered that I was actually being interviewed by Morris Blair to be a post-doc on the old Van de Graaff generator. I spent the day with him. About two o’clock that afternoon, he offered me a job and I accepted. All of this is a little bit different from the way things are done now...

I was attracted by the fact that it appeared to me at that time that at the University of Minnesota, research was important. It was a research university. Having grown up seeing a small college, I thought that that was a bit stifling and I didn’t want that. I thought that one could combine teaching and a research career here...
I also saw coming up the fact that nuclear physics was going to change and that the experiments were going to have to be done at national laboratories because individual universities could not afford to keep these things going; so, I made a conscious decision about that time—I was now an associate professor—that I wanted not to continue in nuclear physics. The department was fairly supportive of that and I became the director of undergraduate studies in physics for a few years...

I’d come out here [Minnesota] and happened, at some point along here, to be invited to the neighbors for a dinner party at which I met a pathologist named Richard Riess [spelled Reece], who was a pathologist at, then, St. Barnabas Hospital, a principal in Lufkin Medical Laboratories, and who was interested in using computers for interpreting lab test results...
So, Riess was making things that he called diagnotes, which were just lists of what could cause an elevated uric acid, or a low calcium, or a high calcium, and so on. At that dinner party, he started asking, "Was there any way that one could computerize this?" Having just put in this online computer at the Tandem Lab, I started using it to try to do some pattern matching. This, then, led to, for several years, my working with Riess as a collaborator and Lufkin Medical Labs having a research contract with the University of Minnesota that supported a couple of students over the years. We did a lot of work on developing automatic interpretation of the clinical laboratory results and published several papers in this area. I can remember still being the director of undergraduate studies in Physics and Mort[on] Hamennesh, who was the department head, coming in one day to tell me that they were promoting me to full professor based on the work that I had done at the Tandem in nuclear physics and the online computer...
[Reece] got me to thinking that it might be interesting to put some [medical] examples in the pre-med physics course; so, I wrote Al Sullivan who was the assistant dean of the Medical School asking if it was possible to snoop around over there. Al asked me to have lunch with him one day—it was in October—and said, "What you really ought to do is to attend Medical School." I said, "I can’t. I’m director of undergraduate studies in Physics. I’m teaching a full load, which is a course each quarter. There’s just no time to do that." He said, "You could just audit things and skip the labs." So, for two years, I did that....

Probably around 1972 or 1973, I started teaching that course, developing it as I went. That turned into a book [Intermediate Physics/or Medicine and Biology] that was published by Wiley in 1978 with a second edition about 1988. I’m trying, without much success, to do a third edition right now [Russ was ultimately successful]....

Included in the interview was a story about Russ’s daughter Ann.

It is now time to do the second edition of my book. I have the solutions manual and the new problems, I have already put into the computer. The new problems are there, but the old ones aren’t; so, Wiley agreed to hire my youngest daughter, Anne [Ann], to type all of the old solutions manual into the computer. She thought she had a summer job. She was done in two and half weeks.

If you still want to know more about Russ, check out the December 2006 issue of The Biological Physicist, the newsletter of the Division of Biological Physics in the American Physical Society. Russ and I (mostly Russ) answered questions about IPMB. Here is what I said about becoming Russ’s coauthor.

THE BIOLOGICAL PHYSICIST (to Brad Roth): Tell us a little about how you first became acquainted with Hobbie’s text, and how you see it has having influenced the field. 

Brad Roth: I used the first edition of Hobbie’s book for a class taught by John Wikswo when I was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. This was a very crucial time in my education, when I was changing from a physics undergraduate student to a biological physics graduate student. The book had a huge impact on me and my career.

When visitors come by my office at OaklandUniversity, they sit politely and listen to me describe my research. Then I mention “Oh, by the way, I am also going to be second author on the 4th edition of Hobbie’s book Intermediate Physics in Medicine and Biology.” At this point, their eyes usually light up and they say, almost with disbelief, “Really? I know that book.”

At the end of the preface to the first edition of IPMB, Russ wrote

Every list of acknowledgments seems to close with thanks to a long-suffering family. I never knew what those words really meant, nor how deep the indebtedness, until I wrote this book.

 Below is the obituary prepared by his family.

Russell Klyver Hobbie, 87, died peacefully at home surrounded with love on December 16. Russ was born on November 3, 1934. His parents were Eulin Klyver and John Remington Hobbie. He grew up in Saratoga Springs, NY and Springfield, MA. He graduated from MIT with a BS in physics, and earned a PhD in physics from Harvard University. In 1960, he and his wife Cynthia moved with their young family to Minneapolis, where he joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota. Over his 38-year career, he was a wonderful professor and stalwart advocate for students. 
After auditing two years of medical school, Russ changed his specialty from nuclear physics to biophysics. He developed a new medical physics course which led to the first edition of his text book, Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. For 12 years, Russ served as Associate Dean of Student Affairs in the Institute of Technology. After retirement, despite having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Russ completed the fourth and fifth edition of the book. 
Russell had many interests, among them canoeing and fishing in the BWCA, the Quetico and the Canadian Arctic. He enjoyed working on genealogy, and developed his skills as a woodworker, making beautiful furniture for his children and grandchildren. He and Cynthia took many trips in the US and abroad and loved spending time at the family cabin on Burntside Lake. They enjoyed theater, music, and visual arts in the Twin Cities. 
Russ is survived by his wife of 64 years, and his children, Lynn (Kevin Little), Erik (Pam Gahr), Sarah (Jacques Finlay) and Ann (Jeff Benjamin), and by his six grandchildren, Henry Benjamin, Grace Little, William Benjamin, Owen Finlay, Phoebe Finlay, and Rosie Hobbie. His sister Jane Bacon, two nieces and several grand nieces and nephews also survive him. 
Russ was a most wonderful and kind person and we will miss him very much. There will be a Memorial Service over Zoom from First Congregational Church in SE Minneapolis on Sunday January 2 at 2PM. We invite people to join us on-line. In lieu of flowers, Memorials may be directed to Save the Boundary Waters or Friends of the Boundary Waters.

Russ, I will miss you. Your work left a legacy that will influence how physics is taught to medical and biology students for years to come.

Russ Hobbie demonstratg the computer program MacDose. Part 1.

Russ Hobbie demonstrating the computer program MacDose. Part 2.

Russ Hobbie demonstrating the computer program MacDose. Part 3.


  1. A great person and a great colleague, which I have missed a lot since he retired. Among his many contributions to the School I include helping start the current Biological Physics group. He was a member of the committee which Allen appointed and I chaired, which set up the parameters for the initial effort and his contributions were very important.

  2. I'm sorry to hear this. His legacy lives on!

  3. I visited my alma mater to give a talk just this month hoping to reconnect with Russ (Dr. Hobbie!). He was so important to my career: being taught by him (great course), working with him on research, having him write a pivotal letter to graduate school (his own alma mater, MIT), and following up with me during my years in graduate school. I have so much to say and so little space to say it. But let me simply announce that if only all of his students knew of his passing, this list of comments would be swamped. There should be some kind of network ...

  4. I spent most of my career as a science educator during which I met Dr. Hobbie. He always had time and was a person of incredible grace. We talked more than once about the book as one edition let to another and then about cleaning up the equations to which he found a lovely solution. He helped me think about an NSF proposal which he thought had fared quite well but was rejected and encouraged me to apply again since he thought it was "close." And this on a Saturday afternoon. I'm so glad to have known him. What a lovely recollection and I'm glad a friend sent it and that you wrote it.

  5. Watch Russ Hobbie's memorial service at

  6. University of Minnesota Physics obituary:

  7. Physics Today obituary: