Skip to content ↓

Otto Harling, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering, dies at 85

Longtime Nuclear Research Lab director made advances in nuclear and condensed-matter physics, nuclear materials, reactor technology, and nuclear medicine.
Professor Emeritus Otto Harling was director of the MIT Nuclear Reactor Lab from1976 to 1996.
Professor Emeritus Otto Harling was director of the MIT Nuclear Reactor Lab from1976 to 1996.

Otto K. Harling, MIT professor emeritus in nuclear engineering and former director of the MIT Nuclear Reactor Lab (NRL) passed away on Dec. 18. He was 85 years old.

Harling's field-defining contributions in research and teaching cut across nuclear physics, condensed matter physics, nuclear materials, superfluids, fission and fusion reactor technology, and nuclear medicine.

Born in 1931 on Staten Island, New York, Harling graduated from New Dorp High School and completed his undergraduate degree at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and the Illinois Institute of Technology. He went on to pursue graduate training in Germany at the University of Goettingen and the University of Heidelberg, and he earned his PhD at Pennsylvania State University.

His career at MIT began when he was appointed in 1972 as a senior research associate. He received tenure in 1979 and was director of NRL from 1976 to 1996.

Notably, Harling oversaw a significant expansion of the NRL’s research mission into nuclear materials irradiation and evaluation and boron neutron capture therapy. He was well known for developing productive collaborations on campus, in particular with MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and engaging with the country’s national laboratories to study fusion reactor materials. One of his most ambitious efforts used the MIT reactor core to simulate a fusion reactor to investigate radiation damage in irradiated materials and enable test methods to determine mechanical properties using miniature samples.

“Otto Harling’s visionary research initiatives established the experimental basis for the use of the MIT reactor as a test bed for nuclear materials and engineering research,” says Gordon Kohse, MIT research scientist and deputy director of NRL research and services.

Harling and his MIT colleagues also built on the technology and irradiation techniques developed for the fusion studies to establish a program in support of light water power reactor coolant technology. These experiments, involving the design and operation of innovative, small, in-core high-pressure and temperature water loops, were instrumental in understanding fundamental aspects of both pressurized water and boiling water reactor coolant chemistries. Success hinged on Harling’s ability to bring together a global array of partners, including the U.S. Electric Power Research Institute, the government of Japan, and other industrial members.

During the latter part of his career, Harling was instrumental in reviving work on boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT) for cancer at the NRL. In 1994 he and his collaborators led a trial for the experimental therapy on a human patient, the first in more than 30 years and the first to use an epithermal beam (intermediate energy).

In addition to his research contributions, Harling and his colleagues played a significant role in enhancing and expanding educational opportunities for nuclear engineers and scientists at MIT and beyond. He led a faculty effort in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) to broaden the radiological sciences curriculum, revamp courses on the measurement of radiation and its uses, and introduce experiments for the student laboratory and the MIT reactor.

He also taught what is now 22.09, “Principles of Nuclear Radiation Measurement and Protection,” for several years. Harling also personally directed the thesis research of over 70 master’s and doctoral candidates at MIT and helped train generations of students at the NRL who have gone on to become leaders at national laboratories, companies, and medical institutions. He also shared his expertise through the publication of more than 300 scientific papers and reports and in book chapters he authored or edited.

“Harling’s work was in the best tradition of MIT's philosophy of Mens and Manus,” says John A. Bernard, Jr, principal research engineer in NSE. “He loved building things — tools and equipment — and expected his students to be equally enthusiastic about getting their hands dirty when working on solutions to problems.”

Harling was elected to a Fellowship in the American Nuclear Society in 2004 and received the Hatanaka Memorial Award, the highest recognition of the International Society for Neutron Capture Therapy, in 2008. Outside of his professional life, he was an avid tennis player and community volunteer, serving on Hingham’s Energy Action Committee, correcting Hingham’s latest flood maps and running climate change programs.

He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Beth; his three daughters, Betsy Harling of Hingham, Maura Stefl (Greg) of Fayetteville, N.Y., and Ottilie MacKinnon (Ewen) of Chichester, N.H.; his son, Kurt Harling (Lisa) of Durham, N.H., his grandchildren Zachary and Hannah Stefl, Ian Mackinnon, Alexander and Mitchell Harling, and Joseph and Matthew Personeni, his sister Anneliese Ringstad of Malaga, Spain as well as many nieces and nephews.

Donations in Harling’s memory may be made to “The Dr. Otto K. Harling Science Memorial Scholarship Fund” c/o Rockland Trust, 100 Sgt. William B. Terry Drive, Hingham, MA  02043.

Related Links

Related Topics

Related Articles

More MIT News