Polykarp Kusch was born the son of a clergyman in Blankenburg, Germany, on January 26, 1911. He moved to the United States with his family only one year after his birth and later received his citizenship. Kusch attended grade school and high school in the Midwest, where he discovered that his goal was to pursue a career in the field of chemistry. He began his collegiate education at the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio, but soon realized that chemistry was not his specialty. His interest shifted to physics, an area in which he excelled. In 1931 he received his Bachelor of Science degree in physics, and then moved on to the University of Illinois for his graduate study work. In 1933 Kusch completed his Masters of Science degree, and was awarded his Ph. D. in 1936.
Kusch made valuable connections during his studies. He worked on problems in the field of optical molecular spectroscopy under the guidance of Professor F. Wheeler Loomis at the University of Illinois, and he worked with Professor John T. Tate at the University of Minnesota in the field of mass spectroscopy from 1936 to 1937.
But neither of those associations would prove nearly as beneficial as his work with one of his colleagues in New York City. After leaving Minnesota, Kusch became associated with the Department of Physics at Columbia University in 1937. Kusch's most famous partner at Columbia was Professor I. I. Rabi, whom Kusch assisted with research on atomic, molecular, and nuclear properties and phenomena by the method of molecular beams. Except for interruptions created by World War II, Kusch worked with the department until he became a Professor of Physics in 1949. During the years he spent as a professor, he contributed to the research and development of microwave generators at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and of course, Columbia University's research facilities. His experience at Columbia was considered the pivotal point in his career, as the people he worked with gave him not only knowledge of microwave methods, but also knowledge of the application of the special techniques of vacuum tube technology to help solve a large range of problems in experimental physics.
His long association with Columbia University greatly influenced the direction Kusch took regarding his personal research. His research, as an extension of what he accomplished as a professor at Columbia, concentrated on the small details of "the interactions of the constituent particles of atoms and of molecules with each other and with externally applied fields. The establishment of the reality of the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron and the precision determination of its magnitude" was part of the enormously popular surge in postwar research on atomic and molecular beams. Later in his career as a researcher, Kusch combined his earlier passion for chemistry with physics, solving a problem in chemical physics that he later applied to his molecular beams technique.
In September of 1948, Kusch was called upon because he was Professor Rabi's laboratory partner to be a consultant in assisting with the design of an atomic beam frequency standard. Professor Kusch described "Some design considerations of an atomic clock using atomic beam techniques" at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Washington on April 30, 1949. Later that summer, construction of the first cesium atomic beam frequency standard began. Its first operating model came to existence in early 1951.
Kusch's most lauded award came in 1955, when he shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Willis Lamb for his precise determination of the magnetic moment of the electron. In his speech, Kusch said,
"I must tell you, and with considerable regret, that I am not a theoretical physicist. A penetrating analysis of the part that the discovery and measurement of the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron has played in the development of certain aspects of contemporary theoretical physics must be left of the group of men who have in recent years devised the theoretical structure of quantum electrodynamics. My role has been that of an experimental physicist who, by observation and measurement of the properties and operation of the physical world, supplies the data that may lead to the formulation of conceptual structures."
Although most of the work Kusch did leading to his Nobel Prize was carried out at Columbia University, he gave recognition and thanks exclusively to Case in his public statements. There is no evidence that he thanked Columbia University or I. I. Rabi, who helped him in his research. Instead, he gave all of the credit to his alma mater:
"This is obviously a time when I engaged in considerable introspection about the happy combination of factors and circumstances that have brought me where I am. My debt to Case Institute is very great indeed. The years I spent were obviously important ones and a spirit of enthusiasm for science and a taste for inquiry into science was certainly developed at Case. I hope this does not sound pompous, but my awareness of what Case did for me is very sharp."
A number of honorary degrees have been bestowed upon Polykarp Kusch, including honorary Sc. D. degrees at the Case Institute of Technology, the Ohio State University, the University of Illinois and Colby College. Kusch was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1956, and was also given an honorary membership to Sigma Pi Sigma. This fraternity formed the Society of Physics Students and continues to operate as a fully recognized honor society. The highest class of membership is that of an Honorary Member, as only "the most distinguished physicists and related scientists who have made valuable contributions to physics at the national level" are eligible.
Kusch's duties at Columbia University went far beyond Professor and Nobel Prize winner. In 1969 and 1970, Kusch was the Vice President and Dean of Faculties. From 1970 to 1971, Kusch served as the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost. Kusch was an active member of Columbia's administration during Andrew Cordier's appointment as acting president in August of 1968. In the search for his replacement, the process involved two committees, one of which included Kusch. He was given little consideration as an insider by the faculty committee, and his impact went no further than that. His short career as a Columbia administrator was equally unimpressive.
Near the end of his life, Kusch became increasingly concerned with "problems of education, especially that of educating the young to understand a civilization strongly affected by the knowledge of science and by the techniques that result from this knowledge." After his death, physicists began a series of lectures to spread Kusch's theories throughout college campuses.
Kusch was married to Edith Starr McRoberts, and they had three daughters together. McRoberts died in 1959, and Kusch married Betty Pezzoni in 1960. Polykarp Kusch died in 1993 at the age of 82.