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Nuclear engineer Thomas Pigford, former MIT professor, dies at age 87

Helped lay the foundation for MIT’s graduate program in nuclear engineering
Former MIT Professor Thomas Harrington Pigford
Former MIT Professor Thomas Harrington Pigford
Photo: Peg Skorpinski/UC Berkeley

Former MIT Professor Thomas Harrington Pigford SM ’48, ScD ‘52, who helped launch the Institute’s graduate program in nuclear engineering, died Sunday, Feb. 28, at his home in Oakland, Calif., from complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 87.

Pigford’s five-decade career in nuclear engineering spanned nuclear reactor design, nuclear safety, nuclear fuel cycles and radioactive waste management. He championed nuclear power, but not at the expense of appropriate safeguards for health and the environment. He was respected among scientists and environmentalists alike for his technical expertise and objectivity, and was appointed to numerous advisory commissions on nuclear reactor safety, including the Expert Consultant Group to Evaluate the Chernobyl Accident and the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island (TMI).

Pigford was born April 21, 1922, in Meridian, Miss., where he attended school before leaving for college. He received his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1943. His graduate studies at MIT were interrupted when he joined the U.S. Navy, where he served in the Pacific during the last stages of World War II. He was discharged with the rank of lieutenant junior grade at the end of the war and returned to MIT to continue his studies.  

While still completing his doctorate, Pigford was asked to join the MIT faculty — he became associate professor of nuclear and chemical engineering in 1955 — and his career there included a two-year stint as director of the MIT Graduate School of Engineering Practice at Oak Ridge, Tenn. Pigford transferred back to MIT from Oak Ridge in 1952, the same year he helped Benedict inaugurate MIT's new graduate program in nuclear engineering.

At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pigford also held a position as senior development engineer with the Aqueous Homogenous Nuclear Reactor Project. From 1957-1959, he was a founding staff member at General Atomic, now called General Atomics, at the time a nuclear technology research and development firm based in La Jolla, Calif.

In 1959, Pigford was recruited to the UC Berkeley faculty as a full professor by Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg, who was UC Berkeley chancellor at the time. Pigford became the first permanent chair of the nuclear engineering department, which had just been elevated to a full department from a graduate studies program. He also held a position as a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Pigford retired from UC Berkeley in 1991 and became professor emeritus.

Pigford's first wife, Catherine Pigford, died in 1992. He is survived by his second wife, Elizabeth Pigford of Oakland, Calif.; his daughters from his first marriage, Cynthia Pigford Naylor of Durham, Calif., and Julie Pigford Earnest of Portland, Ore.; and his step-daughters from his second marriage, Janvrin Demler of Dedham, Mass., and Laura Weekes of Los Angeles, Calif. Also surviving him are five grandchildren and a great grandson. He was also pre-deceased by his brother, Robert, and his sister, Mary Smyser.

A memorial service will be held March 27, in Berkeley, Calif.

In lieu of flowers, the family prefers that donations be made in his honor either to a graduate fellowship established in Pigford's name, or to Doctors Without Borders. For the fellowship, please mail checks — made payable to UC Regents — to the Thomas H. Pigford Graduate Fellowship, University Relations, University of California, Berkeley, 2080 Addison St., Berkeley, CA  94720. For Doctors Without Borders USA, checks should be mailed to P.O. Box 5030, Hagerstown, MD 21741.

This announcement is based on a news release issued by UC Berkeley

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