Stewart Kurtz remembered for his impact on materials research at Penn State

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Friday, February 26, 2021
Stewart Kurtz. Credit: Sven Bilén

Penn State faculty, staff and students are mourning the loss of Stewart Kurtz, professor emeritus of electrical engineering, who died Feb. 13 at age 89. Kurtz was known for his impact on the growth of materials science and materials engineering at Penn State, helping to set it on a path to becoming one of the global leaders in materials research.

Kurtz was born June 9, 1931, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Merion High School in 1948, he spent two years at Haverford College before enlisting in the Navy. For four years, he served as a carrier radio operator from 1951 until 1955 on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during the Korean War.

After leaving the Navy, Kurtz enrolled at The Ohio State University, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees between 1955 and 1960. After leaving Ohio State, Kurtz joined Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey where he worked on ferroelectric materials, which possess a spontaneous electric polarization that can be reoriented via the application of an external electric field. While there, his research team established the Abrahams-Kurtz-Jamieson relationship, a significant finding that relates local dipole distortions in crystal structures to the phase transition temperature of ferroelectrics across many varied materials.

“I very much know the work of Stu Kurtz, and even in my own research use the Abrahams-Kurtz-Jamieson relationship, a very important contribution, that is now being revisited with the discovery of new ferroelectric materials,” said Clive Randall, director of the Materials Research Institute (MRI) and distinguished professor of materials science and engineering.

Kurtz then moved to Philips Laboratories (during which time he also lived and worked for them in The Netherlands) where he served as director of exploratory research until 1978, when he moved to Bristol Myers Clairol Appliance Division as vice president and senior scientist. In 1987, Kurtz was recruited to Penn State as a professor of electrical engineering.

At Penn State, Kurtz became an integral part of materials research. He was named associate director of the Materials Research Laboratory (MRL) in 1988, and then the director of MRL in 1989. From 1992 to 1997, he was both vice chair and executive administrator of MRI, which was created in 1992.

“Penn State is now ranked No. 1 in the nation in materials science by the National Science Foundation (NSF),” Sven Bilén, professor of engineering design, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering, said. “What Stu and colleagues started with a $500,000 investment now has $170 million in research awards. This is an enormous impact and our expertise in this realm continues to make Penn State one of the largest research institutions.”

In 1997, Kurtz turned his focus to the new field of online distance education, joining the Penn State College of Engineering Distance Education and World Campus programs, where he served until 2002. In this role, he developed and taught two online reliability engineering courses. Students in these courses went on to work in positions at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Motorola, and BellCore.

“After Stu got oriented with the online teaching model, he proved to be a solid instructor and quickly became a champion for engaging and interacting with his online students,” said Larry Ragan, retired director of Penn State’s Center for Online Innovation in Learning. “His ambitions were always to serve his students and share as much of his knowledge as possible.”

Kurtz retired from Penn State and was named professor emeritus of electrical engineering in 2002. During his time at the University, he was known for mentoring young faculty and for his innate curiosity.

“As a young faculty member, Stu took an interest in me and we learned a lot from each other,” Bilén said. “Stu was a voracious learner. If you ever had a conversation with him, you know how he scribbled copious notes, and there was almost no topic in which he was not interested. While I taught Stu plasma physics and diagnostics, he taught me spectroscopy and materials interactions. These explorations have led to exciting avenues that I have pursued in my own research.”

While at Penn State, Kurtz was also the president and founder for Septor Inc., a materials consultant firm. Projects he oversaw included the development of a training program for NASA on reliability-centered maintenance, failure modes and effective analysis, and various online training programs for engineers. Among Kurtz’s many professional honors include membership in the Phi Beta Kappa alumni association, an ITT Fellowship and an NSF Teaching Fellowship. He was a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the IEEE Group on Sonics and Ultrasonics, the American Physical Society (APS), the APS Committee on Education, the European Pigment Cell Society, the Materials Research Society and the American Ceramic Society.

Kurtz was active throughout his career as an editor and guest editor for multiple journals. In addition, he published more than 70 times in scientific and engineering journals and wrote chapters in seven books. He also held six United States patents.

Outside of his professional life, Kurtz loved the outdoors and was a dedicated family man to his late wife, Dora, and his four sons, Phillip, David, Timothy and John. His passion for learning also included a deep interest in the history of science. 

“After he retired, Stu and I would meet regularly on Friday mornings over coffee to continue our explorations in plasma physics, novel physics, and general discussion on the history of science,” Bilén said. “I feel privileged that our lives intersected.”

Along with his four sons, Kurtz is survived by his brother, William; four grandchildren, Nicholas, Joseph, Sara and Hannah; and two great grandsons, Ryder and Parker. Online condolences and signing of the guestbook may be entered at www.kochfuneralhome.com and mourners can also plant a memorial tree in his memory.