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James Livingston, senior lecturer emeritus in materials science and engineering, dies at 88

Longtime educator, collaborator, and mentor was an expert in magnetism and author of both scientific and historic nonfiction.
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James Livingston in April 1998
James Livingston in April 1998
Photo: Barry Heatherington

James D. Livingston, MIT senior lecturer emeritus, and his wife, Sherry H. Penney, died last week at their home in Sarasota, Florida, where they spent their winters. Married for 34 years, he was 88 and she was 81; the cause was accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

Livingston's undergraduate education was in engineering physics at Cornell University, and his doctorate was in applied physics from Harvard University. He joined MIT in 1989, coming from Schenectady, New York, where he had been a physicist at GE Corporate Research and Development. The move to Boston was driven by his wife’s career; she was the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston and served for a time as the acting president of the UMass system. His work focused on magnetic materials, including metallic superconductors and rare-earth permanent magnets.

At MIT, Livingston remained active in research, collaborating with several colleagues, mentoring graduate and undergraduate students, and adding valuable expertise to MIT’s teaching and research enterprise. He taught in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (Course 3, DMSE) undergraduate core and served as a first-year advisor, teaching a seminar on magnets. His accomplishments were recognized with awards including membership in the National Academy of Engineering and election to fellow of both ASM International and the American Physical Society, as well as MIT's Best First-Year Advisor Award. He authored many journal articles and books, on a variety of topics: "Electronic Properties of Engineering Materials" was based on his lectures for the DMSE undergrad curriculum; "Driving Force" and "Rising Force" are popular science books on magnetism; and, in a departure from science, he wrote "A Very Dangerous Woman: Martha Wright and Women's Rights" (co-authored with his wife) and "Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York," both histories that grew out of family research.

Although Livingston held a part-time position at MIT, he was fully committed to the students and their needs, and to the Institute. He taught many different classes, was a thesis advisor for graduate students, participated in professional education programs, and served as an ambassador for materials science and STEM education. His textbook, "Electronic Properties of Engineering Materials," was praised by students who used it — one even mentioned it on the subject evaluation, saying "the textbook ROCKS."  

Conversation with Livingston was entertaining, stimulating, and educational, studded with humor and anecdotes that helped make his point. Professor Emeritus Sam Allen says, "Both his writing and lecturing style were engaging because of Jim's conversational style and use of easily grasped examples to teach complex concepts." In one case, he told a class that the easiest thing to do was to find a needle in a haystack; "Needles are magnetic, hay isn't. All you need is a magnet," remembers Chris Schuh, head of DMSE.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. May 25 in First Baptist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts. The service will be led by Rev. Kenneth Read-Brown, minister of First Parish, Hingham, known as Old Ship Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation to which the couple belonged for many years, and which was unavailable due to repair work. A memorial service in Sarasota will be announced.

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