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April 7, 2009

Erwood, energy researcher, dead at 80

An expert in the energy efficiency of particle accelerators, who described himself as an “electrical engineer” to his children, John W. Erwood II made a living at the University of Chicago without so much as a college degree.

But more than for his technical abilities, Erwood was known for his many eccentricities. “He firmly believed that nothing should be thrown away,” said his daughter, Jennifer Erwood. For Erwood, who had access to the kinds of technology used at research labs at the University, it meant a collection of old, possibly hazardous materials. For whatever reason, officials at the University allowed him to collect the technology it decided to discard. “He got away with a lot,” Jennifer said. Last week Erwood, a research associate employed at Fermilab from the late 1950s to the early 1990s and a former lab assistant to Enrico Fermi, died in Bedford, Indiana. Erwood, who was 80, died of asbestos-related cancer.

Having left the Navy after the end of the Korean War, Erwood, who was born and raised in Illinois, found himself looking for a job to support himself and his young wife and ended up as an assistant to Fermi, a noted theoretical physicist at the U of C. Why he was so bent on his collection—which along with dumpster-diving trips resulted in warehouses full of odds and ends—was not entirely clear, even to his own daughter. But it was apparent that he meant it to be beneficial to others; Erwood arranged for a discarded particle accelerator to be given to Illinois’ Elmhurst College.

He also created what was known as the Universal Lab, an unsanctioned, unregulated laboratory where anybody could come and conduct experiments. Although it survived for many years, it never led to many viable scientific projects, and eventually became a drain on Erwood’s resources. In 2000, a new owner arranged for the material stored there to become part of an art exhibit at the Smart Museum, entitled Excerpts from the Universal Lab: Plan B. Erwood’s collecting habit did not entirely escape the University’s notice. According to Jennifer, when two semitrailers on campus were found to be radioactive, he was immediately suspected, although nothing came of it. Similarly, many of the objects found at the Universal Lab were somewhat dangerous, and the University has disavowed any connection with it. “There are many questions left unanswered,” Jennifer said. John Erwood leaves behind a daughter, Jennifer, and a son, John W. Erwood III.