See all NewsEngineering News

Professor Emeritus Bruce Wessels Passes Away

Wessels’s career included notable contributions to the study of thin films and nanostructures

Bruce Wessels, Walter P. Murphy Professor Emeritus of Materials Science and Engineering and former chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), passed away at age 77 on April 7. He will be remembered for his notable contributions to the study of thin films and nanostructures for electronic, magnetic, and photonic materials applications, and his passion for professional service and scholarship at Northwestern Engineering and beyond. 

Bruce Wessels

During his almost-47 years at the McCormick School of Engineering, Wessels was a leader in the development of electronic materials. He developed the transient current spectroscopy technique for semiconductor defect detection at the part-per-billion level. He also discovered a technique for preparing high conductivity, epitaxial II-VI compounds suitable for optoelectronic devices through defect control and a method of preparing rare-earth doped epitaxial III-V compounds, and advanced epitaxial ferroelectric thin films for integrated optical applications. In addition, he was a founder of the electronic materials effort within the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. 

Along with those achievements, Wessels mentored more than 50 doctoral students and post-docs who have been successful in both academia and industry around the world. His interest in service even extended to a stint as chairman of the General Faculty Committee, which preceded the current University faculty senate.  

“Bruce Wessels was a towering figure in materials science in both research and education,” said Christopher Schuh, Dean and John G. Searle Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. “He played a significant role in building materials science at Northwestern into a pillar of excellence and was a respected colleague to collaborators around the world.” 

An author of 405 articles and holder of 21 US patents, Wessels’s career was marked by numerous honors and service. He served as president of The Metallurgical Society (TMS) and its foundation, was named a fellow of the Optical Society of America, American Physical Society, the American Society of Metals, and TMS. He was a member of the Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering, and served on the editorial board of the Journal of Electronic Materials from 1982–88 and as an associate editor from 1997-2008. 

“Professor Wessels played a pivotal role in the development of Northwestern Materials Science and Engineering by expanding the scope of the department to include electronic materials,” said Mark Hersam, Walter P. Murphy Professor and Chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “His commitment to excellence set an exceptionally high standard that not only impacted his own research but also served as an example that permeated throughout the department.  He will always be remembered for his profound contributions as an educator, researcher, colleague, and friend not only to the department but also to the school, University, and broader materials community.”  

In 1968, Wessels earned his bachelor of science in metallurgy and materials science from the University of Pennsylvania, and then his PhD in materials science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1972.  

Wessels began his professional career at General Electric, where he developed a practical process for light emitting diode fabrication. In 1977, he joined the Northwestern Engineering faculty as an assistant professor before becoming an associate professor three years later. Wessels was named a professor of materials science and engineering in 1984, and in 1987 he earned the appointment from EECS. From 1980-1990, he directed the Electronic Materials Program. 

The accomplishments continued for Wessels, who was named a Walter P. Murphy Professor in 1998 and the chair of the EECS department in 2005, a post he held for the first two years of the newly combined department’s existence. In 2020, Wessels transitioned to emeritus status.  

Visitation will be 10 a.m. Friday, April 12, at William H. Scott Funeral Home, 1100 Greenleaf Ave., Wilmette, Illinois, followed by an 11 a.m. celebration of life. The committal service is scheduled for noon Friday at Memory Gardens Cemetery, 2501 E. Euclid Ave., Arlington Heights, Illinois.