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Morris E. Fine, Materials Science Pioneer, Dies at 97

Fine co-founded the world’s first department of materials science at Northwestern

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Morris E. Fine, the Walter P. Murphy Professor Emeritus of Materials Science and Engineering and the Technological Institute Professor Emeritus of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, died Wednesday (Sept. 30) at age 97. 

A member of Northwestern’s faculty since 1954 and co-founder of the world’s first department of materials science, Fine was well-regarded in the Northwestern engineering community and in the field of materials science, at both the national and international levels. 

Fine was dedicated to discovering new materials with the potential of improving society. He always had his eyes toward the future of research and urged cooperation among academia, industry and government to push the boundaries of science.

Fine came to Northwestern with a range of experiences that included work with the Manhattan Project in Chicago and Los Alamos and later with Bell Labs in New Jersey. 

Along with Northwestern colleague Don Whitmore, Fine co-created the University’s department of metallurgy in 1955 and became its first chair. As new faculty members joined, the department broadened its scope to include ceramics, polymers and electronic materials. The new profile inspired a new name: in 1958, the world’s first-ever department of materials science was born.

“Morrie was at the very foundation of the history of the department of materials science and engineering and a major contributor to the excellent reputation it has today,” said Julio M. Ottino, dean of Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. 

“He co-founded a department that was ahead of its time and dedicated his life to its success. Though Morrie retired before many of our current faculty joined Northwestern, he remained an active, engaged and highly respected member of our community,” Ottino said.

A National Academy of Engineering member, Fine will be remembered as an inspirational mentor, selfless collaborator and valued friend, colleagues said. He was known for his patience, inventive personality and excitement for new ideas. 

Although he received his Ph.D. in metallurgy from the University of Minnesota in 1943, Fine’s interests expanded well beyond metals. He explored everything from physical chemistry to mechanical behavior and enjoyed studying alloys, ceramics and composite materials. His 1964 book “Introduction to Phase Transformations in Condensed Systems” remains a classic text in the field.

“The scientific principles in his work are still in vogue and now being applied to newer fields, such as bio-nanomaterials,” said Michael Bedzyk, chair of Northwestern’s department of materials science and engineering. “Our department, including faculty, students and alumni, is forever grateful to Morrie for his leadership, inspirational teaching, kindness and sense of community.”

Fine was well-known for bridging the divide between basic research and practical, industrial application. In 1965, he embarked on a fundamental study of steels containing copper, which led to the development of improved steels. Instead of waiting for industry to discover his copper-hardened, high-performance steel, called NUCu, he became its advocate and salesman. Fine and colleague Semyon Vaynman joined federal committees to convince standards-setting bodies to accept NUCu and persuaded bridge owners and designers on its advantages.

Sold on this exciting new material, the Illinois Department of Transportation used NUCu steel in 2000 to retrofit the Poplar Street Bridge Complex over the Mississippi River in East St. Louis and in 2006 to construct the north Milwaukee Avenue Bridge in Lake Villa. 

Although he retired from Northwestern in 1988, Fine continued to be an active member of the community until his final days. He inspired his colleagues by coming to work nearly every day and continuing to write proposals and publish his research, resulting in more than 300 papers to his credit. In 2009, the department of materials science and engineering created the Morris E. Fine Lecture to celebrate his life and contributions. 

Fine enjoyed an extensive list of honors, including the ASM Gold Medal, the Mathewson Gold Medal of the Metallurgical Society from the AIME and election into the American Physical Society, The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But of all his life’s successes, he was most proud of his students and the 70 Ph.D. students he advised throughout his career. Fine was eager to share his knowledge with the next generation of scientists and learn from their experiences and insights.

During a 2012 interview with The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, Fine said, “Each of the 70 students that I advised through their Ph.D. was a highlight for me.” 

A service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 7, at Temple Emanuel Sinai, 661 Salisbury St., Worcester, Massachusetts.

- Amanda Morris, writer/editor at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, is the author of this story.