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Louis Smullin, former electrical engineering department head, 93

Louis Smullin
Louis Smullin
Photo courtesy of MIT

Louis D. Smullin, former head of the electrical engineering department who helped to create MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), died peacefully at his residence at Lasell House on Thursday, June 4. He was 93.

"Lou was an enormous force at MIT, one of the people who championed the values that make this place great. That kind of insight and wisdom is needed now more than ever," said Hal Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Born on Feb. 5, 1916, Smullin received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1936, and an SM from MIT in 1939.

Early in his career, Smullin made his mark at several industrial companies. From 1936 to 1938, he worked in the high voltage laboratory of the Ohio Brass Company, Barbertown, Ohio. Upon graduating from MIT in 1939, he went to the Farnsworth Television Company, Fort Wayne, Ind., to develop the design and testing of photomultiplier tubes.

In 1941, Smullin joined the MIT Radiation Laboratory as head of the Radiation Laboratory Transmit-Receive (TR) and Duplexer section. There he supervised the development of methods for testing microwave TR tubes, work which was crucial in the successful development of airborne radar used during World War II. The development saved many lives and had a positive influence on turning the tide in the war.

After a stint with the Federal Telecommunications Laboratory, Smullin returned to the Institute in 1947 to organize and head the Microwave Tube Laboratory of the Research Laboratory of Electronics. He helped plan and set up MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, and in 1952 became head of the Radar and Weapons Division at Lincoln Lab. In 1955, he returned to the Cambridge campus as associate professor of electrical engineering and was made professor in 1960. He was the head of the Active Plasma Systems Group of the Research Laboratory of Electronics.

Smullin was named the electrical engineering department head in 1966, serving through February 1974, when he stepped down to focus on teaching. In the 1970s and 1980s, with Smullin's help, the electrical engineering department evolved into EECS.

"Lou Smullin had the great foresight of building up the computer science wing of the EE department, including the appointment of the first two associate department heads, one for computer science and engineering and one for electrical science and engineering," said Institute Professor Joel Moses.

An experiment for which Smullin is widely remembered occurred in 1962, soon after the first laser was invented. He and Giorgio Fiocco transmitted laser pulses to the moon for the first time, and detected their return in an experiment they called "LunaSee."

Smullin retired from MIT in 1986 and as emeritus professor continued to ride his bike daily to the Institute, continuing his work on cold fusion research until suffering a stroke in 2001.

He is the co-author of a book titled "Microwave Duplexers," and has published numerous technical articles and reports. Smullin was a member of the American Physical Society, the American Society of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, Eta Kappa Nu and Sigma Xi. He was a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Physical Society.

Smullin is survived by his sparkling wife of 69 years, Ruth Frankel; three children, Susan Jones of Belmont, Mass., Joseph Smullin of Swampscott, Mass., and David Smullin, Bend, Ore.; daughters-in-law Alix Smullin and RuthAnn Smullin; Susie's partner Howard Kaplan; nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. They will remember him for his gentleness, his story-telling skills, his endless persistence, and his boundless enthusiasm for science and making the world a better place.

Smullin was preceded in death by son Frank Smullin and daughter-in-law Terry Bonynge.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Louis D. Smullin (1939) Prize in Teaching Excellence, which rewards faculty members within EECS for teaching excellence with preference toward rewarding those teaching EECS Common Core subjects.

A memorial service is being planned for later this summer.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 10, 2009 (download PDF).

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