Careers & Advancement

MRS Obituary for Arthur R. von Hippel

This obituary for Arthur R. von Hippel appeared on the MRS website following his passing on December 31, 2003.

Arthur R. von Hippel, a pioneer in the field of materials science, died at the age of 105 on December 31, 2003, after a brief illness.

Recruited to the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1936, von Hippel created the Laboratory of Insulation Research a few years later, which made critical contributions to the development of dielectric materials for radar during World War II, earning von Hippel the President's Certificate of Merit in 1948.

In recognition of his contributions to materials research, the Materials Research Society established the Von Hippel Award as its highest honor in 1976 and named von Hippel as the first recipient. The inaugural award recognized von Hippel as a pioneer in the study of dielectrics, semiconductors, ferromagnetics, and ferroelectrics and as an early advocate of the interdisciplinary approach to materials research, as exemplified in his laboratory, where scientists worked cooperatively to solve the mysteries of materials from the atomic to the microstructural level . Since 1976, the MRS Von Hippel Award has been bestowed annually on a materials scientist or engineer whose career accomplishments reflect brilliance and originality of intellect, combined with vision that transcends the boundaries of conventional scientific disciplines.

Von Hippel's example substantially furthered the science of materials. The publication of his books Dielectrics and Waves (John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1954) and Dielectric Materials and Applications (the Technology Press of MIT and John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1954) pulled material from courses von Hippel taught in which he brought together physicists, chemists, engineers, manufacturers, and users as they learned to communicate with one another. He later published two visionary books, Molecular Science and Molecular Engineering (the Technology Press of MIT and John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1959) and The Molecular Designing of Materials and Devices (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1965), in the same vein. In a tribute to von Hippel's 100th birthday, Markus Zahn, the Thomas and Gerd Perkins Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT, noted that artist M.C. Escher made a woodcut, “The Thinker,” for the latter book, “showing a man in a foolscap contemplating a ‘screwy' model in puzzled confusion.” Zahn noted, “Von Hippel had a friendship with M.C. Escher because he felt a relationship with Escher's art and molecular designing."

At the time of von Hippel's official retirement in 1964, numerous groups from his laboratory joined in forming the new MIT Center for Materials Science and Engineering, with a von Hippel reading room in recognition of the professor's contributions. After retirement, von Hippel continued researching and teaching, even connecting materials with the field of biology, as discussed in his last publication in 1979, “From Atoms Toward Living Systems” (Materials Research Bulletin 14, p. 273).

Born in Germany to an academic family in 1898, von Hippel studied physics and then joined the physics institute headed by Nobel Prize recipient James Franck. He married Franck's daughter Dagmar in 1930. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, von Hippel left Germany and, after working at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, joined MIT in 1936.

Von Hippel's outspokenness and defense of the underdog made him beloved by his students but not always by the engineering establishment. His amused comment on being notified of his election to the National Academy of Engineering in 1977 was, “it appears that my friends have outlived my enemies.” His teaching style was warm and humorous, and he frequently helped students in need.

For the last 65 years of his life, von Hippel lived in Weston, Massachusetts. He always greatly enjoyed time with his family, and time spent in the mountains of New Hampshire, walking and skiing. He and his wife, Dagmar, who died in 1975, are survived by five children—Peter, Arndt, Frank, Eric, and Maianna—11 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.