Alan L. McWhorter, a longtime professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and an administrator and researcher at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, has died in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was 87.
His family said his death was unexpected despite some recent health problems. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
McWhorter is best known for his research in electronic and quantum devices including transistors, lasers, and masers. In 1955, he developed the McWhorter model for low-frequency flicker (or 1/f) noise caused by surface effects in semiconductor devices. The model, sometimes called “the McWhorter effect,” continues to be widely cited today. In the mid-1960s, he received three patents related to semiconductors.
However, according to MIT colleague Paul Penfield Jr., his range of interests was broader and extended in many dimensions. “Al’s lesser-known but still pioneering work included aspects of control systems, power semiconductors, infrared detection, and optical communications,” said Penfield, an emeritus professor and former EECS department head. “But besides his technical breadth, he understood both the theoretical and experimental sides of engineering, cared about both the pedagogy and applications of various technologies, and promoted short-term applied research along with long-range curiosity-driven research.”
Long legacy at MIT
Born in Crowley, Louisiana, on Aug. 25, 1930, McWhorter began his education in New Orleans at Tulane University’s School of Engineering, then transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, receiving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1951. He received an ScD degree in electrical engineering from MIT in 1955.
McWhorter joined the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering as an assistant professor in 1959, served as an associate professor from 1960 to 1966, and as a full professor until he retired in 1996. During his time with EE (now EECS), he supervised more than 30 students’ work on their master’s, PhD, and ScD theses. With a generous donation, he established a fellowship fund, the Alan L. McWhorter (1955) Fund, to support graduate students studying electrical engineering
McWhorter was also affiliated with the Solid State Division at MIT Lincoln Laboratory for more than 40 years, beginning as a staff member in 1955. He served as assistant division head and associate head between 1962 and 1965, when he was named to head the division. He served as division head for 29 years, becoming a Lincoln Laboratory Fellow in 1994 and retiring in 1996.
“Al was a warm, generous, and inspiring colleague,” recalled Erich Ippen, a principal investigator at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) and a professor emeritus of both electrical engineering and physics. “As an early leader in quantum electronics, he was a valuable mentor for us younger researchers in that area on campus as well as at Lincoln Lab.”
Frederick Leonberger knew McWhorter in both MIT roles. “I had the good fortune of having Al as my doctoral thesis advisor. His insightful guidance and high standards not only inspired me in my research, but also provided an excellent model for conducting and managing the research process,” said Leonberger, who is now a principal with EOvation Advisors. “At Lincoln Laboratory, where I subsequently worked, his leadership — as well as the range of research topics he had expertise in and contributed to — provided a role model of technical excellence for the staff, and helped enable the many important technical achievements of the division over the years.”
Many MIT colleagues still recall that, in 1969, McWhorter was involved in a near-fatal collision in Arlington, Massachusetts, sustaining a skull fracture, a concussion, eye and facial injuries, and many broken bones. But four months later, after seven operations and multiple setbacks, he walked out of Massachusetts General Hospital, returning to work at MIT soon after. He also returned to hiking and mountain-climbing, beginning with a trip to the Grand Tetons one year after his release from the hospital.
McWhorter received his first two patents, both for semiconductor switching matrixes, in 1963 and 1964, at a time when researchers were experimenting with a variety of ways for using semiconductors in computers. The patents describe the development of the cryosar, one of the early semiconductor memory devices. Semiconductor memory (such as RAM) is now ubiquitous in electronics.
The third, and arguably most historically significant patent, came in 1966. It reflected McWhorter’s involvement as a member of one of three teams that had nearly simultaneously demonstrated the first semiconductor laser (then called an infrared maser). Today, semiconductor lasers are used in devices ranging from DVD players to laser pointers to printers to tattoo-removal devices.
In 1958, McWhorter and two colleagues received the National Electronics Conference Annual Award for their technical paper on solid-state masers.
McWhorter was also a long-time member of the IEEE, a leading technical professional organization. In 1968, he was named an IEEE Fellow, a distinction reserved for select members with extraordinary accomplishments. The IEEE recognized McWhorter “for contributions to control theory and its applications to switch power systems and image processing.” In 1971, McWhorter received the IEEE David Sarnoff Award, which recognizes exceptional work in electronics, “for outstanding contributions leading to a better understanding of semiconductor devices.” In 2000, he won an IEEE Third Millennium Medal “for contributions to control theory and its applications to switch power systems and image processing.” He was one of just 45 members of the IEEE Electron Devices Society to be so honored.
In 1993, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for “outstanding research and technical leadership in the fields of quantum electronics and solid-state devices.” He was also a long-time fellow of the American Physical Society, and a member of the scientific and engineering societies Sigma Xi, Tau Beta Pi, and Eta Kappa Nu (HKN).
McWhorter also authored or co-authored dozens of scientific articles and hundreds of reports, contributed to several books, and served as an editor on two IEEE publications.
After retiring in 1996, he returned to the New Orleans area and again began participating in Tulane activities, such as the Friends of Music, the Summer Lyric Theatre, and the Emeritus Club and Educational Conference offerings of the Alumni House. McWhorter, who died on July 11, 2018, is survived in the New Orleans area by niece Patricia McWhorter (Peter C. Broussard); nephews David McWhorter (Lisa) and Steven McWhorter (Renee), and six grandnieces: Olivia Broussard (Lucien Weiss); Allyson McWhorter; Brindley McWhorter; Rebecca McWhorter Ruegge (Gene); Elizabeth McWhorter Guillory (Dakota); and Emily McWhorter Menendez (Colin). A private memorial service will be held in New Orleans at a later date.
Gifts in memory of Alan McWhorter may be made to MIT via the Alan L. McWhorter (1955) Fund, account #3304350. Credit-card gifts can be made at giving.mit.edu/alan-mcwhorter. Checks should be made payable to MIT and mailed to: MIT Memorial Gifts Office, 600 Memorial Drive, Room W98-500, Cambridge, MA 02139.