Physicist Robert Thornton’s influence lives on in Thornton Hall

Author: Kanaga Rajan
February 27, 2024
Thornton Hall and Hensill Hall buildings

SF State’s first Black dean of science was a physicist, educator and pen pals with Albert Einstein

Science is constantly striving to break barriers and challenge old ideas. So it’s apropos that one of the main science buildings on the San Francisco State University campus, Thornton Hall, is named for an individual who broke barriers as a science educator.

The nine-story building was named after physicist Robert Ambrose Thornton (1897 – 1982), the first dean of San Francisco State’s School of Natural Science in 1964 and the first Black faculty member to become a dean of science at the University. The building was built in 1972 and renamed after Thornton in 1981 at President Paul F. Romberg’s request. From his childhood to his work with Albert Einstein, Thornton was a force for science and education.

“Students today are asking us to change our rigid, orthodox views in order to implement the traditional values on which we say a democracy is based. I'm all for it. These dissidents of today could save America if we'd listen to them and work with them," Thornton told Pat Pierard in a 1967 interview for the The Daily Gator.

Thornton joined SF State in 1956 as a Physics professor with an expertise in theoretical mechanics and astrodynamics. In 1963, he was the first Black faculty appointed chairman of the Division of Natural Sciences and became dean of the School of Natural Science (later School of Science) the following year. He retired from SF State in 1969.

Read the full story on SF State News.