In 1954, University of New Hampshire president Robert Chandler had a problem faculty member, Professor Kenneth Yates. He was ‘undoubtedly a brilliant physicist,’ Chandler would recall. He had taught at various schools and colleges for nearly 10 years, making him polished, capable and comfortable in the classroom. His students liked him because he clearly communicated complicated mathematical concepts. To his colleagues in Durham, he seemed like another academic with a wife and young children. The problem? He had another name, Marvin Hewitt.
Marvin Hewitt, Busted
But a struggling undergraduate student of Yates’ decided to look up his professor’s credentials in the reference book, American Men of Science. He found that Yates did indeed have a Ph.D. from Ohio State University. But more importantly, the book listed Yates as currently employed at an oil company in Chicago.
The professor who claimed he was Yates would later say he thought the young student was investigating him. Nevertheless, he gave the young man a failing grade – which he deserved. In retaliation, the student notified the faculty that he suspected Professor Kenneth Yates was a phony.
Summoned by the university administration to explain himself, Yates confessed. He was not Kenneth Yates at all. Nor did he have a Ph.D. from Ohio State University, nor anywhere else for that matter. He was Marvin Hewitt, a high school dropout from Philadelphia.
Nonetheless, Marvin Hewitt was a brilliant physicist. He told a remarkable story of a decade of deceit and no fewer than eight teaching posts in physics and electrical engineering.
A Nerdy Child
Marvin Hewitt had been a bookish child, bored at school and viewed as a poor student. His police officer father urged him to take an interest in sports. But instead he buried himself in advanced mathematics, an undiscovered, self-taught child prodigy.
Once when called upon to speak at school, he delivered a lecture on the theory of relativity that astounded the teachers and students. Marvin Hewitt suspected, perhaps rightly, that they didn’t understand a thing he said.
After a stint in the Signal Corps during World War II, Hewitt took up a series of factory jobs. Bored to tears, he answered an advertisement seeking a math teacher at a military school. The school quickly hired him to teach eighth graders.
Marvin Hewitt didn’t find the teaching academically challenging, but an idea started to grow in his mind. He clearly had a gift for teaching. Why not do it at a higher level?
Using forged letters of recommendation, Marvin Hewitt fashioned himself a new career as Julius Ashkin, physics professor. He found work at Minnesota, St. Louis and Utah. Each step gave Hewitt a raise in pay and prestige.
The real Ashkin was at the University of Rochester, and Marvin Hewitt cringed every time Ashkin published a scientific paper.
But he tap-danced his way around the questions. Once, while walking down the street with his future father-in-law, he nearly fainted when a student approached him and called out his name: “Hello Dr. Ashkin.”
But his act fooled everybody — almost. When asked about him, a professor at Columbia University once explained there were two Dr. Ashkins, the physicist from Rochester and another ‘some place in the west.’
Of course, there was only one. And the real Dr. Ashkin wrote to his doppelganger in Utah with a remarkably generous offer. He said he would find a place for Hewitt in an actual physics program where he could quickly earn an actual Ph.D. and relieve himself of the stress of being an imposter. Hewitt declined and the university quietly dismissed him.
Back to Philly
Marvin Hewitt returned to Philadelphia, bringing his wife to live with his mother. By now Hewitt’s father had died, gunned down by a car thief. Hewitt tried to get an honest job in industry, but he was thwarted by his lack of a security clearance and formal education.
Finally he decided to adopt a new identity. This time he was George Hewitt, director of technology at RCA, and he applied to the University of Arkansas explaining that he missed teaching. Even though the salary of a professor was not equal to industry, he longed to return to the classroom, he said.
At Arkansas, Marvin Hewitt taught electrical engineering. As a professor prolific with his research, he published in numerous journals. He planned to make a name for himself over three years and seek a tenured position.
His plans unraveled when a recruiter from RCA came to the campus. Did he know, a senior faculty member asked, that RCA’s former technology director was currently teaching there?
Quietly drummed out of Arkansas, Marvin Hewitt returned to Philadelphia, now father to twins. He knew the lies he would have to tell to obtain a security clearance would get him thrown in jail. So once again he found another name to adopt: Kenneth Yates. Off to the University of New Hampshire he went for one more year of teaching.
Marvin Hewitt Makes National News
When exposed at New Hampshire, the university let him slip quietly away – as the others had. But a month later newspapers got hold of the story and he made nationwide news.
In the aftermath of his exposure, Hewitt was treated kindly. The city of Philadelphia offered him work. As the son of a slain police officer, the city felt it could do no less.
Government agencies gearing up for a space race reached out to him. Ultimately, though, Marvin Hewitt, at age 34, wound up designing satellites for a Maryland technology company and publishing papers on his discoveries.
“If they’d only let me be a professor, I’d never want anything else,” he told Life magazine. “You know, I lied only to get those jobs. I was a good teacher. I’ve never hurt anyone.”
But he did, he admit, feel good about his final exposure:
“It was a relief. I felt glad about it. Once the thing broke in the newspapers I knew that it was finished for keeps . . . or don’t you think so?”
This story about Marvin Hewitt was updated in 2021.
Images: Thompson Hall by By AcrossTheAtlantic – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63031225.