Professor Julian Szekely dies at 61

Dr. Julian Szekely, a professor of materials engineering who was widely known as an expert in the development of mathematical models in materials processing operations, including analysis of the economic, technological and environmental factors involved in the production of various materials, died of cancer December 7 at the MIT Infirmary. He was 61.

The breadth of his research could be seen in his seven textbooks, 12 edited volumes, more than 420 journal articles, and several patents, with several more patents pending.

A member of his department, Dr. Kenneth C. Russell, professor of metallurgy and nuclear engineering, said that Dr. Szekely's colleagues and students "knew him for a unique sense of humor and a love of life to match his passion for work."

A memorial service will be held at the MIT Chapel on February 16 at 5pm.

As an example of his pioneering work in mathematical modeling, he developed the first comprehensive mathematical model of fluid-flow, electromagnetics and heat transfer phenomena for the refinement and solidification of metals, as well as the first quantitative analysis of plasma torches and innovative approaches to circuit board attachment problems.

As long as 15 or 20 years ago, as a consultant to steel companies, Professor Szekely provided analysis of the status and prospects of the overall steel-making technologies of that era. This came at a time when the industry required more optimal and efficient steps for steel production in its struggle against the impact of obsolescence, high costs of labor and pollution control.

Last August, in Mattsee, Austria, Dr. Szekely co-organized a "Top Executive Steel Summit" that explored future directions in steel production and promoted a dialogue between equipment builders and steelmakers from throughout the world.

His work has covered a broad range of problems, including gas-solid reactions, fluid flow and mixing in steel processing, fluid flow phenomena in blast furnaces, welding, plasma processing and the electromagnetic processing of materials. Many leading researchers in these fields on the international scene are former students of his.

His recent research concentrated on the mathematical modeling of welding, soldering, mold filling operations, plasma systems, chemical vapor deposition and electron beam melting reactors, among others.

Recent research accomplishments included the mathematical modeling of a complex microgravity experiment that was flown in the space shuttle last year, as part of a multi-team effort among NASA and various American and German universities. This is a continuing experiment that is scheduled to be flown again in 1997.

His interests extended into areas outside his professional field. In a 1989 letter to The Boston Globe, for example, he offered several reasons for the poor performance of US high school students in comparison with students from many other countries. He said it was one of the reasons why too few Americans were choosing careers in science or science education.

He added that "the considerable sums spent on supporting the vast and rapidly growing administrative bureaucracies could be much better spent in supporting properly planned classroom activities."

Professor Szekely was born on November 23, 1934, in Budapest, Hungary. He became a US citizen in 1972.

He received both the BSc (1959) and PhD (1961) degrees in chemical engineering from Imperial College in London.

He taught at Imperial College until coming to the United States in 1966. He taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo until 1975, when he came to MIT as a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Over the years, Professor Szekely was a frequent visitor to Japan and, in 1990, to prepare for a five-month sabbatical at Osaka University, he took a Japanese language course at MIT. He went on to hone his skills and, when he was invited to address the Japanese Engineering Academy in 1992, he did so in an hour-long speech in Japanese and even took questions after his talk in Japanese.

Professor Szekely believed that US-Japanese relations could be greatly improved if engineers and scientists in each country learned more about the other country's language, culture and society.

His recommendations included the establishment of joint appointments at leading universities, where professors would spend one to two months a year lecturing, preferably using the mother tongue of the students.

Dr. Szekely had an extensive consulting practice, and he worked with companies and government organizations in the US, Japan, Latin America, Germany, Finland, Sweden and France. He was an effective mentor of minority students and an active participant in MIT's Japan Program.

Professor Szekely's memberships included the National Academy of Engineering, the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers, the Institution of Chemical Engineers (British), the Metals Society (British) and the Japanese Iron and Steel Institute.

In addition, his work was recognized by numerous awards, both nationally and internationally.

These included the Charles H. Jennings Memorial Award of the American Welding Society (1983), the Educator Award of the Metallurgical Society (1991) and the Fellow Award of the Metallurgical Society (1993), the Humboldt Prize given by the Max Planck Institute of Germany (1992), honorary membership in the Hungarian Academy of Engineering (1992), Doctor Honoris Causa from the Institut National Polytechnique de Grenoble, France (1994), the Yukawa Memorial Lectureship of the Iron and Steel Society of Japan (1990 and 1995), honorary membership in the Iron and Steel Institute of Japan (1995), the DSc of the University of London, the Mathewson Gold Medal (1973), the Extractive Metallurgy Science Award (1973), Curtis McGraw Research Award of the American Society of Engineering Education (1973), Sir George Bielby Medal and Prize of the British Institution of Chemical Engineers (1973), The Professional Progress Award of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (1974), John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (1975), and the Howe Memorial Lecturership of the Iron and Steel Society (1979).

His survivors include his wife, Joy, of Weston; four sons, M. Thomas Szekely of Telluride, CO, Richard J. Szekely, M. Tarquin Szekely and David A. Szekely, all of Weston; a daughter, Rebecca Szekely of Washington, DC; a grandson, Matthew; an aunt, Lilo Racz of Budapest, Hungary; and a cousin, Kristina Gmur of Geneva, Switzerland.

A funeral Mass was held on Tuesday (December 12), at St. Joseph Church, South Lincoln.

In his memory, contributions may be made to the Julian Szekely Fellowship Fund in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 13, 1995.

Topics: Obituaries

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