August F. Witt, internationally noted for his research in electronic materials and his devotion to teaching undergraduates, died Oct. 7 of gastric cancer at his home in Winchester.
Professor Witt was born in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1931. From 1953-54 he did graduate research in nuclear chemistry with Madame Joliot-Curie, a 1935 Nobel laureate, in Paris. In 1958 he worked on radiation chemistry at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell, England. He received his Ph.D. in 1959 in physical chemistry from the University of Innsbruck.
Professor Witt came to MIT in 1960 as a research associate in what was then the Department of Metallurgy, working on surface chemistry problems related to mineral flotation. In 1962 he was appointed to the faculty as an assistant professor and his primary research focus became the processing and characterization of electronic materials. He was promoted to professor in materials science in 1972.
In 1974 he received NASA's Outstanding Scientific Achievement Award for his work as a Skylab co-principal investigator for advancing materials processing in space. In 1976 Austria presented him with the Exner Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Science and Technology. Professor Witt was a member of the American Association of Crystal Growth (past President 1975-1981), the American Ceramic Society, Sigma Xi and Tau Beta Pi. He chaired NASA's Electronic Materials Working Group from 1982-89.
In 1990 he was the first recipient of the Amar Bose Award for Sustained Efforts in Undergraduate Teaching as well as being named TDK Professor in Materials Science and Engineering. In 1992 he received the Space Processing Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In 1993 he became Ford Professor of Engineering and was also elected to a 10-year term as a MacVicar Faculty Fellow.
"As a researcher, Professor Witt has made major contributions to the understanding of the processing and characterization of electronic materials," said Professor Merton C. Flemings, former head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. "He is widely and warmly respected for his outstanding commitment to students and for his enthusiastic and innovative teaching, especially in the first-year course, 3.091, Introduction to Solid State Chemistry, which he headed for over two decades. Half of MIT's undergraduates over that time have been his students."
"Professor Witt was an outstanding teacher and faculty colleague in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering since 1962," said Professor Subra Suresh, current head of the department. "His passion for undergraduate teaching and his strong concern for the welfare of the MIT undergraduates were extraordinary."
For many years, Professor Witt was a member of Austria's national saber fencing team and was national saber champion in 1956. He tied for first at the Academic World Championships in 1954. He was also a meticulous gardener, had a passion for classical music and was an avid Boston sports fan.
Professor Witt is survived by his wife Karin (Morawski), sons Karl of Winchester and Thomas of Boston, and daughter Andrea (Witt) Sendlenski and her husband Michael Sendlenski of Winchester. A funeral Mass will be held at Saint Mary's Church, 155 Washington St., Winchester at 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 12. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions may be made to the August F. Witt Student Fund in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. A memorial service will be held on campus at a future date.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 9, 2002.