Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

George Homsy, former chair of chemical engineering and acclaimed teacher, dies at 80

The principal investigator of a landmark set of multimedia materials for teaching fluid mechanics, Homsy was known as a generous mentor and iconoclastic teacher who was devoted to ensuring the success of the Department of Chemical Engineering.
Black-and-white portrait of George Homsy against a cardinal red background.
George Homsy, 1943-2024 | Chuck Painter / Stanford News Service

George M. “Bud” Homsy, professor emeritus and former chair of chemical engineering, died March 12 of cancer at his home in Lake Forest Park, Washington. He was 80.

A fluid dynamicist and gifted mathematician, Homsy was an unyielding advocate for excellence in the Department of Chemical Engineering, former colleagues said. He served as chair of the department from 1987 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996.

“Bud played an essential role in establishing the research impact of Stanford Chemical Engineering and in defining our identity as a leader in education,” said Andrew Spakowitz, the Tang Family Foundation Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering. “He performed pioneering research in fluid mechanics and transport phenomena, and he contributed immensely to educating students about transport processes as the principal investigator for the production of Multimedia Fluid Mechanics.”

Educator and mentor

First published in 2001 as a collection of CD-ROMs, Multimedia Fluid Mechanics was initially conceived as a way to collect, curate, and revitalize a corpus of historic fluid mechanics films of the last century. But as Homsy and his editorial collaborators got deeper into their work, their novel approach to synthesizing videos, virtual labs, computational demonstrations, and historical notes developed into a groundbreaking work in the field of interactive education. In the end, it set a new standard as a learning resource for undergraduate and graduate students studying fluid mechanics.

“The images and movies from this work demonstrate the beauty of fluid mechanics to a broad audience and have captivated generations of students,” added Spakowitz, who also is a professor of materials science and engineering. “Bud will be sadly missed by his many colleagues throughout the chemical engineering community at Stanford and beyond.”

Homsy was also known as a generous mentor. “When I think of Bud, the first word that comes to mind is ‘gracious,’” said Eric Shaqfeh, professor of chemical engineering and of mechanical engineering. “He was supportive of everyone around him. Every young faculty member who had Bud even as a part-time mentor realized how important he was in their lives and to their development as standard-bearers in their fields.”

Curtis Frank, the W. M. Keck, Sr. Professor in Engineering, Emeritus, recalled Homsy as an “absolute defender” of the Department of Chemical Engineering. “A really deep affection for the department showed in everything he did,” said Frank, professor emeritus of chemical engineering. “He wanted to get absolutely the best performance that you were capable of. And that expectation was directed toward everyone – toward students, toward other faculty. He really, really wanted the department to succeed.”

Parviz Moin, the Franklin P. and Caroline M. Johnson Professor in the School of Engineering, said Homsy “had a good nose for authentic talent and scholarship.”

“Bud always had high standards professionally,” said Moin, a professor of mechanical engineering. “He was known at Stanford for being a most thorough vetter when it came to hiring new talent in the School of Engineering. He did his homework and, together with his eloquence, carried a lot of credibility.”

“As an educator, he was a champion and promoter of sound theory in engineering science,” Moin added. “He was also an influential advocate for the creation of what’s now called the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering.”

Birth of a legendary course

Homsy was also known as a phenomenal teacher and something of a cutup. As his alter ego, Captain Safety, he wore a cape, a hardhat crested with a bejeweled star and the word “SAFETY,” and a T-shirt emblazoned with a lightning bolt overlaid by a “CS” escutcheon while teaching students how to work properly with materials that could be hazardous.

Homsy and his longtime friend and colleague Channing Robertson, now professor emeritus of chemical engineering, increased the number of Stanford undergraduates who chose to major in chemical engineering by offering a flamboyant and famously engaging introductory course to the field.

To drum up interest in the course, Homsy placed an advertisement in The Stanford Daily in 1977 inviting students to “join our two stars, spacy Captain ‘Bud Homsy’ Safety and his outrageous sidekick, Stanford’s newest punk rock sensation, glitter boy ‘Channing Robertson’ in a most bizarre episode of Chemical Engineering 20.”

Robertson, Professor in the School of Engineering, Emeritus, said he still gets emails every week requesting the course syllabus. “We never used a textbook. We dreamt everything up. And you know, Bud was a master at that,” Robertson said.

Family, friends, and fluid mechanics

George Mitchel Homsy was born Aug. 29, 1943, in Fresno, California, to George E. and Adele Homsy. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1965 (his father was also a Cal alumnus) and a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1969. In 1970, he joined the Stanford School of Engineering as an assistant professor of chemical engineering, rising to the rank of full professor in 1979.

His research focused on fluid mechanics and transport – in particular, interfacial flows, polymer and viscoelastic fluid mechanics, porous media flows, and microgravity fluid mechanics. He did some of his most important work on viscous fingering, which occurs under certain conditions when one fluid displaces another in a porous medium. The phenomenon, in which the interface takes the form of developing, branchlike protrusions, is generally linked to differences in the viscosity of the fluids. Homsy helped to identify the mechanisms that govern various types of fingering, providing insights with useful applications in oil recovery, hydrology, and filtration.

Homsy authored or co-authored more than 150 papers in the field of fluid mechanics and transport phenomena. He was a fellow of the American Physical Society, which awarded him its 2004 Fluid Dynamics Prize, and served as chair of the organization’s division of fluid dynamics. He was also a member of the National Academy of Engineering. At Stanford, Homsy was awarded a Bing Fellowship for excellence in teaching, and Paul Sabatier University, in France, awarded him an honorary doctorate.

From 2001 to 2009, he was a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara, and from 2010 to 2014, he was a professor of mathematics and of mechanical engineering at the University of British Columbia. He served as an affiliate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Washington from 2014 until his death.

Shaqfeh said that Homsy was remarkably humble given his prominence in the field of fluid mechanics. “He was always just Bud from Fresno, wearing a baseball cap,” Shaqfeh said. “He would always go to bat for you, and he put people ahead of himself all the time. In fact, I have never met a person who was as selfless given how much respect people had for him.”

At Berkeley, Robertson and Homsy were roommates, and they played together in a band – Robertson on piano, Homsy on saxophone. “I don’t know that we were very good, but we had fun,” Robertson said. “He was incredibly bright and intelligent and warm and compassionate. I mean, I really loved the guy, and I consider him certainly one of my best friends ever.”

Homsy is survived by his wife of 59 years, Barbara “Bryn” Homsy, and two children: George “Geo” Homsy of Mount Shasta, California, and Robert “Rob” Homsy of Los Angeles.

A memorial for Homsy is scheduled for 3-6 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Stanford Faculty Club.

Related Departments