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Robert White, expert on magnetics and former chair of electrical engineering, dies at 96

A solid-state physicist and two-time Guggenheim Fellow, White conducted research on magnetic materials and helped develop a cochlear prosthesis and a diagnostic assay that worked by labeling biomolecules with magnetic nanoparticles.
Black and white portrait of Robert White, placed in the middle of a cardinal red background.
Robert White, 1927-2023 | Image courtesy of Chuck Painter for Stanford News Service

Robert L. White, the William E. Ayer Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and an expert on magnetism who helped develop a medical diagnostic and an implantable hearing device, died Dec. 10 at his home in Palo Alto. He was 96.

White served as chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering from 1981 to 1986 and as director of the Exploratorium, the interactive science and arts museum in San Francisco, from 1987 to 1989. From 1991 to 2003, he was director of Stanford Center for Research on Information Storage Materials, established to encourage collaborative research between Stanford and the magnetic disk industry.

“He was always full of ideas and insights,” said Bruce Clemens, the Walter B. Reinhold Professor in the School of Engineering, Emeritus, who collaborated with White at the center. “He enjoyed a good turn of phrase and was full of great sayings and aphorisms.”

One such maxim, Clemens recalled, was: “All ideas seem like good ideas in their first 15 seconds of life.”

A solid-state physicist, White initially worked in industry laboratories, investigating and designing magnetic materials. He continued in the same line of research at the School of Engineering, where he joined the faculty in 1963 with appointments in the departments of Electrical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering.

But mid-career, he suddenly pivoted, choosing instead to focus his efforts on a completely different project: the development of a bionic ear.

The idea came to him after spending what he described as a contemplative sabbatical at Oxford University during the 1969-70 academic year. He perceived that academic and commercial interest in the field of magnetics was waning, and he was ready for a change.

He was drawn to the goal of developing a cochlear prosthesis after reading a paper about an electrode that physicians had implanted in the inner ear of a deaf person who could then distinguish differences in pitch and volume (but not actual words). What’s more, he discovered that one of the physicians leading that research was Blair Simmons, chief of the Division of Otolaryngology at the Stanford School of Medicine.

Returning to Stanford, White sought out Simmons, who had dropped his work on a cochlear implant for lack of regular engineering support. He and White teamed up to revive the effort. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, they worked on the technology for the next 20 years, collaborating closely with teams at UC San Francisco and the University of Melbourne.

Stanford was home to a lab capable of making tiny, implantable integrated circuits. “There were not another two universities in the world that could do it in those days,” he said in a 2015 interview with the Stanford Historical Society. “I had an unfair advantage, which is wonderful to have.”

In 1975, White established the Stanford Institute for Electronics in Medicine and served as its director until 1987. The institute’s focus was development of a cochlear prosthesis. However, he and Simmons never formed a company to produce a device commercially. “We didn’t patent anything. We published everything,” White said. “I did not covet the business of manufacturing the prosthesis.”

Still, their work influenced the development of prostheses that later became commercially available.

“The cochlear prosthesis was the most important thing I did research-wise at Stanford, in my mind,” White added.

Joining the Stanford faculty

White applied for a faculty position at the Stanford School of Engineering and was hired as an associate professor in 1963, promoted to full professor in 1966, and awarded an endowed professorship in 1985. His research interests included magnetic resonance – that is, the absorption or emission of electromagnetic radiation by electrons or atomic nuclei in a magnetic field; optical spectroscopy, or the use of light wavelengths to determine the properties or molecular structure of a material; the atomic origins of magnetic materials; microwave magnetic materials; and the design of magnetic materials, especially magnetic oxides.

He taught a quantum mechanics course for engineering students and wrote a book, Basic Quantum Mechanics (McGraw-Hill, 1966), with that audience in mind.

Around 1987, while serving as chair of electrical engineering, White was approached by the Exploratorium’s board of trustees about whether he would be interested in serving as director of the museum.

“I was ready to do something else, and the Exploratorium seemed like a very unique and interesting challenge,” he said. “I decided to do it. When I got there, however, I found that the job wasn’t what I’d pictured it. My main job was to keep the place afloat financially.” He stepped down from the role in 1989.

About that time, White observed that there was renewed interest – and funding – in magnetics research, particularly as it related to thin-film materials, which were being used to greatly expand the storage density of computer disks. White saw an opportunity to position Stanford – already the source of much of Silicon Valley’s know-how – as a leader in the field. So, in 1991 he established the Center for Research on Information Storage Materials, which received early donations and equipment loans from companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Digital Equipment Corp.

“People are pleased to see Stanford become involved in magnetics research since Stanford sits in the middle of the disk industry,” White told the Stanford News Service in 1993.

An unintended but fortuitous outgrowth of his renewed focus on magnetics research, particularly the research on magnetic storage, was a realization – sparked by an inquiry from the Stanford Genome Technology Center – that magnetic nanoparticles could be used to label biomolecules, opening the door for a new kind of molecular diagnostic assay. Much of the technology from the disk drive industry could be repurposed toward such an end, White said.

White formed a company, MagArray Inc., in 2005 with a colleague in electrical engineering and one at the Genome Technology Center to commercialize the diagnostic. He served as president of the company from 2005 to 2009.

White was also fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and of the American Physical Society. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1969 and again in 1977 and was a Christensen Fellow at Oxford in 1986.

He co-authored some 200 papers and served on the leadership boards of several companies and as a consultant for many others, including IBM, Lockheed Corp., and Varian Associates.

Depression-era childhood

Robert Lee White was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1927, the youngest of six siblings. Like many other families of the era, the White family was hit hard by the Great Depression: His father’s business folded, and the family lost their home. Although his mother didn’t attend high school and his father dropped out in his early teens, White said his family prized education and that he was expected to do well in his studies.

He attended Columbia University on a scholarship toward the end of World War II but was there for only a semester before being drafted into the Navy. His father died while he was in boot camp. He was trained in radio electronics at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., before being discharged in 1946 and returning to Columbia to continue his undergraduate studies.

During the summers in high school, White worked at a beach resort hotel in Madison, Connecticut, where he met his future wife, Phyllis Arlt, who was also working there. They married in 1952, and White earned a PhD in physics from Columbia in 1954.

He took a job at Hughes Research Laboratories in Southern California in 1954, eventually serving as the associate head of its atomic physics department. From 1961 to 1963, he headed the magnetics department of the General Telephone and Electronics Research Laboratory in Palo Alto. But he began contemplating an academic career after GTE decided to transfer him and his team to its laboratory in Bayside, New York.

In addition to his wife, Phyllis White, he is survived by his four children: Laurie Stacey, Kimberly White, Christopher White, and Matthew White.