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Frederic Morgenthaler, professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer science, dies at 82

Longtime member of the MIT faculty was a dedicated researcher and educator in the field of electromagnetism.
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Frederic Morgenthaler
Frederic Morgenthaler
Photo courtesy of the Morgenthaler family.

Frederic Richard “Rick” Morgenthaler ’55 (VI-A), SM ’56, PhD ’60, professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, died on June 21 at the age of 82. Morgenthaler was an accomplished researcher and educator, who spent his long career at MIT studying the theory and applications of electromagnetism.

Born on March 12, 1933, in Cleveland, Ohio, Morgenthaler trained as an electrical engineer at MIT, completing a BS, and then an MS in 1956. He began his research in the field of nonreciprocal microwave ferrite devices while serving in the United States Air Force from 1957-1959. He went on to continue his research in the area under the direction of Professor Lan Jen Chu in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), receiving his PhD in 1960. He joined the MIT faculty the same year. 

Morgenthaler led the Microwave and Quantum Magnetics Group in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), where his research focused on the theory underpinning the propagation of electromagnetic waves, and its numerous practical applications.

In the introduction to the 2011 textbook he authored on the subject, "The Power and Beauty of Electromagnetic Fields," Morgenthaler wrote eloquently on the topic that was the focus of his research for nearly four decades at MIT.

He described the bronze plaque in MIT’s Eastman Laboratories (Building 6), inscribed with the mathematical symbols that represent Maxwell’s Equations. These simple equations, which predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves propagating at the speed of light, he explained, have made possible much of the technology we depend on today, from radio, to X-rays, to magnetic resonance imaging, to the Internet. “No one can doubt the utility — the power — of electromagnetic theory,” Morgenthaler wrote.  

A dedicated educator, Morgenthaler worked to equip MIT electrical engineering students with a deeper understanding of electromagnetism. He taught undergraduate electrical engineering core curriculum subjects in electromagnetic field theory, circuit theory, and semiconductor electronics. He also served as graduate officer for EECS from 1993 to 1996.

Morgenthaler was a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the author of over 100 scientific publications. He held the Cecil H. Green Professorship for 1984-1986. After his retirement in 1996, he continued to teach as a senior lecturer until 2000.

“Professor Morgenthaler greatly enriched MIT through his research, and his dedication to educating several generations of MIT electrical engineers,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, head of EECS and the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor in Electrical Engineering. “His colleagues at MIT and the numerous students that he mentored throughout his career will miss him greatly.” 

Morgenthaler, who lived in Wellesley, Massachusetts, is survived by his wife of 57 years, Barbara Pullen Morgenthaler; two daughters, Ann Rappaport SM ’88 of Wellesley and Janet Krolman; two sons-in-law, Carey Rappaport PhD ’87 and Arthur Krolman; and four grandchildren, Sarah and Brian Rappaport and Douglas and Tess Krolman. 

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