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Professor emeritus Elias P. Gyftopoulos dies at 84

Longtime faculty member in nuclear and mechanical engineering was among the foremost thermodynamicists of his time.
Elias Gyftopoulos
Elias Gyftopoulos
Photo: Bachrach

Elias P. Gyftopoulos, Ford Professor Emeritus of Nuclear Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, died peacefully at his home in Lincoln, Mass., on Saturday, June 23. He was 84 years old.

Considered by many to be one of the foremost thermodynamicists of his time, Gyftopoulos was highly regarded for his significant contributions to the fields of nuclear engineering and mechanical engineering, having held appointments in both departments at MIT.

Born in Greece, Gyftopoulos served in the Greek army while earning degrees in electrical engineering and mechanical engineering from the National Technical University of Athens. He left Greece to pursue an ScD in electrical engineering from MIT, working as both a research assistant and an instructor in the Department of Electrical Engineering during that time. After graduating in 1958, he was immediately hired by the department as an assistant professor and, in 1960, moved to the newly formed Department of Nuclear Engineering. By 1965, he had advanced to the position of professor of nuclear engineering and, from 1968 to 1969, served as acting department head. In 1970, he was named Ford Professor of Nuclear Engineering and, six years later, Ford Professor of Nuclear and Mechanical Engineering, a position he held until his retirement in 1996. He served as Chair of the MIT Faculty from 1973 to 1975.

Gyftopoulos’s interest in nuclear engineering began with a survey course on nuclear reactors he took as a doctoral student in electrical engineering, which in turn led him to develop a new course on nuclear reactor safety and control. This interest in nuclear reactors caught the attention of Professor of Mechanical Engineering George Hatsopoulos, who invited Gyftopoulos to investigate whether nuclear reactors could be used to convert nuclear energy directly into electricity.

In the course of this study, Gyftopoulos identified several contradictions and inconsistencies that had permeated the understanding of thermodynamics and physics for decades, and began to direct his research efforts to reconciling these longstanding issues. The resulting unified quantum theory of mechanics and thermodynamics formed the basis of a new understanding of thermodynamics from a non-statistical viewpoint that applies to both macroscopic and microscopic systems either in a state of thermodynamic equilibrium or not, providing a self-consistent presentation of thermodynamics.

Gyftopoulos was seen by colleagues as a charismatic and devoted teacher, highly praised and greatly admired by generations of students for the clarity, depth and rigor of his lectures. For many years, he was the instructor in charge of a popular core graduate subject, offered jointly by the mechanical and nuclear engineering departments, that emphasized the fundamentals as well as applications of thermodynamics. This course led to the now-classic textbook “Thermodynamics: Foundations and Applications”(co-authored with G.P. Beretta).

Gyftopoulos was an outstanding leader of the Greek community in Boston, and served as a trustee of Anatolia College, the American Farm School and Hellenic College. He served on the boards of several private companies and as chairman of the National Energy Council of Greece.

For his many extraordinary contributions to the fields of nuclear and mechanical engineering, Gyftopoulos received numerous awards, including the Ruth and Joel Spira Award of the School of Engineering for Teaching Excellence, the James Harry Potter Gold Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the Edward F. Obvert Award of ASME, the Robert Henry Thurston Lecture Award of ASME, and the Commander of Order of Merit of the Republic of Greece.

Gyftopoulos was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a corresponding member of the Academy of Athens, as well as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, ASME, the American Nuclear Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He is survived by his three loving daughters, Vasso, Maro and Rena Gyftopoulos. His beloved wife Artemis passed away in 2011.

The funeral service will be held on Thursday, June 28, at 10:45 a.m. at the Holy Cross Seminary Chapel at Hellenic College-Holy Cross Orthodox School of Theology, 50 Goddard Ave., Brookline, Mass. Visiting hours will be held on Wednesday, June 27, from 4 to 8 p.m. A public memorial service for Gyftopoulos will take place from 3-4 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 9, at the MIT Chapel. A reception will follow at Twenty Chimneys.

In lieu of flowers, gifts in Gyftopoulos' name may be made to MIT for the Elias P. Gyftopoulos (1958) Memorial Scholarship Fund (to provide scholarship support for undergraduate students from Greece) or the Elias P. Gyftopoulos (1958) Fellowship Fund (to support graduate students in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering). Gifts may also be mailed to Bonny Kellermann, MIT Office of Memorial Gifts, 600 Memorial Drive, Room W98-514, Cambridge MA 02139.

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