Remembering Louis Dijour Smullin 1916-2009

Mensch. Empathetic enabler. Pathfinder and maker. Risk taker. Uncommonly wise. Provocateur. Loving Father, Grandfather, Great Grandfather. Storyteller. Visionary. [Attributes associated with Louis Smullin at his memorial, August, 10, 2009]

Louis D. Smullin, professor of electrical engineering and MIT Electrical Engineering Department Head from 1966-1974.

Louis D. Smullin, professor of electrical engineering and MIT Electrical Engineering Department Head from 1966-1974.

Louis D. Smullin, lived a full and fruitful life; a life of dedication to learning and helping others in this quest — family, friends, students, strangers. He died peacefully June 4 following an eight year recovery from a stroke suffered in 2001. He was 93.

Former Electrical Engineering Professor and Electrical Engineering Department Head at MIT, Smullin would have loved the memorial service his family initiated and held in the Grier Rooms at MIT on August 10. Well over 75 devotees came to celebrate his life and sadly express their loss. Remembrances from several colleagues, family and friends reflected the wide spectrum of his impact. Here are a few excerpts from some of these remembrances.

I remember Louis as a man of remarkable empathy and understanding of people and a man of vision and imagination who thought deeply about where the department should be heading when he was Department Head, just as he thought deeply about science and engineering.

I met Louis Smullin in 1967 after George Pratt wrote a letter recommending me for a visiting appointment in the Department under the auspices of the Institute-wide Abby Rockefeller Mauze visiting professorship program to promote scholarly work by women in science and engineering at MIT. Louis Smullin supported George Pratt’s recommendation, and so it happened that I came to MIT as a visiting professor. He was willing to take a risk on me, as the first woman to have a faculty-like appointment in the Department.

At the time I was at Lincoln Lab in a research staff position. All was going well until the Mansfield amendment was passed in 1964, requiring employees of federally sponsored labs to do research relevant to the sponsoring Agency’s mission, which led to the requirement that employees at Lincoln Lab report for work at 8 o’clock in the morning. This was difficult for me to do because I had four small children at the time (ages 3 to 8 years in 1967). As a result, I was looking for a place to visit for a short time that had more flexible working hours than Lincoln Lab. It was my good fortune that thanks to Louis Smullin, the visiting appointment not only happened, but after a short time turned into a permanent appointment.

Several years later, Louis Smullin thought that the Department would benefit from having Associate Department Heads, and in 1972 he asked me to become associate head of EE, while Bob Fano became associate head of computer science. Louis Smullin anticipated the rapid growth of computer science and had the vision to invest resources to strengthen its growth at MIT at an early time. At the time of my appointment I had no prior leadership or administrative experience. Louis had confidence that I could succeed in this assignment, and I did my best to live up to his expectations. Soon after I became Associate Head of EE, Louis strongly supported the appointment of Barbara Liskov as a young faculty member, adding a second female member to our department. This appointment was very nice for me, and as it turned out she became a great intellectual addition for moving the fledgling computer science effort forward. Louis Smullin thought deeply about his responsibilities to keep our department first in the Nation and had the courage to take risks to make it happen. It was my privilege to have had the opportunity to know Louis Smullin and to work with him. We remember him with great fondness and admiration for who he was and what he did to enrich the lives of so many of us.”

Millie Dresselhaus, Institute Professor


“I had heard a lot about Lou Smullin before I ever met him. My PhD thesis advisor at Berkeley, John Whinnery, a microwave guy like Lou, was an admirer of the MIT EE program and of Prof. Smullin. Since we were starting a laser group at Berkeley in the ‘60s, early laser feats were of particular note. And, Lou Smullin had bounced a ruby laser beam off the moon. A few years later when my father (also an MIT professor) talked admiringly about Lou’s working with him to establish the engineering program at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, I certainly knew who he was.

Then in 1972 I met Lou for the first time. I was considering coming to MIT. As department head, he interviewed me. I remember being very impressed. He was soft spoken and friendly. He also asked the right questions. Not the easy ones, or the comfortable ones. The right ones. When I finally did come to MIT in 1980, I remembered this initial impression as I heard him ask just the right question time after time at various departmental meetings. One of those moments occurred after I had been here only a couple of months. Lou asked me to organize an open house of department laboratories. I said, “I don’t think I’m the right person to do this. I don’t know all the people and the range of activities that well.” Lou smiled and said quietly, “Don’t you think this would be an excellent time to learn.”

At the same time Lou was always thoughtful and encouraging. I think, perhaps because of his close relationship with my longtime colleague Hermann Haus, Lou always seemed to know when a kind word was appropriate. When I was going through my father’s files following his death, I found evidence of Lou’s thoughtful touch there as well. There, forwarded by Lou to my father at the time of my first interview, was a particularly generous outside recommendation letter. It has, of course, occurred to me that I should also probably be thankful to Lou for only forwarding one of the letters.

Dee and I will cherish the nice memories we have of social occasions together with Lou and Ruth. We do miss him. Sometimes when I drive along Mt. Auburn St. on the way to Watertown/Belmont in the evening, I can still see Lou pedaling home. And, I still feel a bit guilty about driving past him.”

Erich Ippen, Elihu Thomson Professor of Electrical Engineering and Physics

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