Memorial Tribute to Emmett Leith

Emmett Leith, Schlumberger Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the College of Engineering, died in Ann Arbor on December 23, 2005. He was 78.

Professor Leith was born in Detroit and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics and his doctorate from Wayne State University. He first joined the University of Michigan in 1952 as a researcher at the Willow Run Laboratories. In 1970 he assumed the role of Chief Scientist of Willow Run Laboratories, retaining that title when Willow Run Laboratories later became the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan (ERIM). In 1983, he was appointed the Schlumberger Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Truly one of the University of Michigan’s most distinguished scientists and engineers, Professor Leith is recognized throughout the world for his groundbreaking experimental and theoretical work in the area of optics. Professor Leith is best known for his keystone contribution to modern holography, the science of making three-dimensional “photographs” without lenses. With fellow researcher, Juris Upatnieks, Professor Leith discovered how, using the newly invented laser, a second beam of coherent light could result in a complete capture of the 3-dimensional information about the object, thereby perfecting the holographic process first described by Nobel laureate Dennis Gabor of the Imperial College of London. In another major achievement, his research served as the basis for optical signal processing in synthetic aperture radar. A profound thinker and experimenter, Professor Leith is recognized for his originality and scholarly achievement. He was also admired by his colleagues and students as a dedicated and inspiring teacher. Professor Leith played a major role in establishing the optics curriculum within the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and has served on many doctoral committees. His students hold key positions in optics research activities across the nation.

Professor Leith received numerous prestigious awards throughout his career, including: the National Medal of Science, the Morris N. Liebmann Award from the IEEE, the R.W. Wood Prize from the Optical Society of America, the Holley Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Progress Medal from the Royal Photographic Society, the Daedalion Minuteman Award from the U.S. Air Force, the Ives Medal of the Optical Society of America, the Gold Medal from the International Society for Optical Engineering, and the Stuart Ballantine Medal from the Franklin Institute. Professor Leith was a Fellow of the IEEE and of the Optical Society of America, and a Member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Professor Leith is survived by June, his wife of 49 years, and their two daughters, Pam Wilder of San Jose, California and Kim Leith of Baltimore, as well as three grandchildren. The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science offers its deepest condolences to the family, friends, and colleagues of Emmett Leith. Emmett’s impact has been profound. Through his exceptional scientific insights and ground-breaking research, the warmth and dedication he brought to teaching, and his unique sense of humor, he inspired and touched the lives of many, here at the University of Michigan and around the world. His legacy is a lasting one and he will not be easily forgotten.