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Joseph Bicknell, emeritus professor in aero/astro, dies at 84

Retired MIT professor Joseph Bicknell, who was instrumental in developing the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel and in performing aircraft testing in the tunnel during World War II, died in Kingman, AZ, on July 22 at the age of 84. The cause of death was a stroke, according to his daughter, Marsha Bicknell of Kingman.

Professor Bicknell, professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics, was a member of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics for 30 years, specializing in applied aerodynamics.

He was born in Weymouth to a family that traced its roots in the community to 1632, 12 years after the arrival of the Pilgrims. He received the SB and SM degrees in aeronautics from MIT in 1934 and 1937. It was a time when few engineers went on to PhDs. He was an assistant in aeronautical engineering from 1934 to 1937, when he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics doing flight research. He returned to MIT in 1939 as a research associate and was appointed to the faculty in 1943. He became an associate professor in 1946 and professor in 1969.

He served as executive officer of the department and faculty operations officer for several years. In 1968-69 he headed the department's Experimental Projects Laboratory. He also taught one summer in Europe as part of an exchange program, at universities in Berlin and London.

In the four years prior to his retirement in 1973, he was on a leave of absence from MIT while teaching at Texas A&M.

Professor Bicknell and his late wife, Mary F. (Hart) Bicknell, lived in Hingham while Professor Bicknell was at MIT. They spent most of their retirement years on the island of Port Aransas, TX, off Corpus Christi, where he continued his lifelong interest in sailing boats, both as a sailor and builder.

He had been a member of the MIT Sailing Club for many years and his hobby was small-boat design, construction and repair, which took up much of his time in Texas, his daughter said. He limited himself to boats 22 feet and smaller, such as the Marblehead Skiff, one of his favorites, she said. Over the years, he wrote numerous articles for small-boat journals and was considered an expert in the field.

He and his wife also became active members of the small island community, his daughter said.

Professor Bicknell was chairman of the island's harbor committee, played a key role in developing the community's first library, served as proofreader for the island newspaper and was a substitute teacher in the public schools.

Teaching remained one of Professor Bicknell's greatest enjoyments, his daughter said, and he accepted calls to teach in any grade, from elementary to high school. "He really shaped up one third grade that was having problems with multiplication," she said.

In addition to his daughter Marsha, Professor Bicknell leaves two sons, Frank L. of Sydney, Nova Scotia, and Kenneth H. of Kingman.

Professor Bicknell had lived in Kingman about six years. There was no funeral service. His body was cremated and, according to his wishes, a sailing friend spread the ashes on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 28, 1996.

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