In Memoriam: Jean M. Bennett

July 18, 2008


Jean BennettJean M. Bennett, an OSA Past President and Fellow Emeritus, died on July 18, 2008 in Ridgecrest, California after a long illness. She was 78.

A highly decorated research physicist who was recognized for her contributions to the studies of optical surfaces, Bennett was OSA's first female president.

Jean Bennett received her BA in physics from Mount Holyoke College in 1951. She did her graduate work at Pennsylvania State University, earning a Ph.D. in physics in 1955. She was the first woman to achieve that degree at Penn State. From 1955-1956 she was employed as a research physicist at Michelson Laboratory, China Lake, California. In 1956 she joined the Naval Weapons Center (now the Naval Air Warfare Center) at China Lake where she remained throughout her career, leaving briefly for visiting appointments at the University of Alabama, Huntsville and Stockholm's Institute of Optical Research.

Bennett was an OSA member for 37 years. She served on the OSA Board of Directors from 1978-1980 and as OSA president in 1986. She was an editor for Applied Optics and Optics Express and also served on the Esther Hoffman Geller Award, David Richardson Medal and CEK Mees Medal committees. Bennett was named an OSA Fellow in 1972 and was awarded the David Richardson Medal, given for distinguished contributions to applied optics, in 1990.

Bennett was the recipient of numerous other awards and honors, including the SPIE Technology Achievement Award (1983) and the Naval Weapons Center L.T.E. Thompson Award for scientific achievements in optics technology (1988). She was recognized as a Senior Fellow of the Naval Weapons Center in 1989 and in 1994 she was named a Distinguished Fellow, an honor limited to .025% of the Naval Weapons Center's technical population, for her contributions to interferometry, micro-roughness analysis, and optical physics, and in recognition of extensive original contributions and achievements in optical surface scattering and surface roughness. In 1988 the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (formerly the Rose Polytechnic Institute) In Terre Haute, IN, created the Jean Bennett Award, given annually to a senior who has demonstrated excellence in optics.

Bennett was recognized for her achievements as a woman scientist in an era where women in optics were few and far between. She received the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division [NAWCSD] Lifetime Achievement Award of Women Scientists & Engineers in 1993 and was awarded a National Science Foundation grant for visiting professorships for women. However, when interviewed about her achievements as a woman scientist [Optics News, January 1986], she downplayed any gender discrimination. "I would like to think that optics is for everyone who has the necessary abilities, is challenged by the problems and excited by new discoveries," she said. "The future for everyone, men, women, minority groups - whoever - is very bright if they are willing to work. No one group should be given special benefits, but everyone should be given equal opportunities without discrimination. Fortunately, I believe that discrimination for women is decreasing, and some of that remaining is in the eyes of the women who want to blame their lack of achievement on something other than their lack of effort. So I think it behooves all of us to work hard and try to do our very best."

Bennett was the author of several book chapters and books, including Introduction to Surface Roughness and Scattering, 2nd edition, published by OSA in 1999. She was also the author or co-author of well over 100 articles in scientific journals and held several patents.

Bennett was an avid outdoorswoman and an active member of the Sierra Club.  She enjoyed kayaking in the Alaskan wilderness and was a member of the first group to be allowed to kayak without an official guide through the Grand Canyon.  She hiked mountain trails throughout the world and traveled to Antarctica.

Bennett was a supporter of the Maturango Museum, a museum of the cultural history, natural history and geology of the Northern Mojave Desert.  She was its first curator and served several terms on Board of Directors.

At her request, no funeral service is planned.

Help establish a student travel grant program in memory of Jean Bennett through a contribution to the OSA Foundation. This grant will recognize the research excellence of a student presenting his or her work at OSA's Annual Meeting, "Frontiers in Optics" and will help keep the memory of Jean's work alive for generations to come.

Tributes to Jean M. Bennett

"We honor Jean for her decades of optics research and most valuable service to OSA and the Optics Community. I extend my deepest sympathy to her family and many friends."

Boris Stoicheff
1976 OSA President


“Jean Bennett was a pioneering figure in optics, not least in being the first woman to be president of OSA (after a long line of some seventy-odd more or less elderly white males), and she was also an invariably stimulating, interesting and pleasant person with whom to interact. Encounters with colleagues who are both professionally stimulating and personally interesting and rewarding can be among the major rewards of participating in a organization like OSA, and Jean displayed all those qualities to the full every time I had the good fortune to encounter her.”

Tony Siegman
1999 OSA President


“It is so sad to hear of Jean’s passing. She was such a wonderful person, dedicated to science, and most specifically, optics. I have many fond memories working with her during my time at the Navy Michelson Lab at China Lake, CA. Among her many interests was the work of the Lab’s namesake, Albert Michelson. Like him, Jean was devoted to precision measurements using optics.

Jean was as meticulous in her hobbies as her science. Back in the days of Super 8 movies, she would document her many wilderness hikes and float trips. The final product of a trip was an expertly edited film of the adventure. Of course there were always left over film reels and film canisters. Jean was good buddies with our young son (Bruce) at the time and Jean would share these ‘treasures’ with him.

One of my family’s fondest memories was a nine day trek in 1975 in Grand Gulch, Utah with Jean and others from the lab. The photo on the left is of Jean and Bruce (then 5 years old.) The people around the campfire (left to right) are: MJ Soileau, Bruce Soileau, Jean's friend Joan, Jean Bennett, and Cheryl Soileau (standing.) The third photo is at the trail entrance (the barrier was to keep motor vehicles out) and pictured are Bruce, Jean and MJ. These photos were sent to me by Jean a few years ago and were taken by our colleague Jim Porteus.

Jean was the first notable speaker at CREOL soon after its founding in 1987. As I recall this was part of her tour of local chapters of the OSA related to her term as President of the OSA. She was dedicated to our profession and will be missed by many.”

Bennett   Bennett

M. J. Soileau
Vice President for Research & Commercialization
University of Central Florida, Orlando


“Jean Bennett was unique. I have never met anyone quite like her. The OSA will always be in her debt due to her devotion and contributions to our society.”

Tom Baer
2008 OSA President-Elect


“The passing of Jean Bennett is a very sad occasion – she was a friend and colleague from my early days in the OSA. Jean made major scientific contributions to the optics community and was a pioneer in becoming the first female President of the OSA. I had the pleasure of having countless discussions with Jean on the issue of diversity in our community – an issue that was dear to her heart. I also fondly remember Jean as someone willing to mix it up with the best of us to make a point that she felt passionate about – a fighter! Jean will be greatly missed by the optics community and the OSA. My deepest sympathy and condolences go out to Jean’s family and friends.”

Anthony M. Johnson
2002 OSA President


“I am saddened by the news. OSA and the entire Optics/Photonics community have lost a ground-breaking pioneer, a passionate supporter and a great friend. Jean will be remembered with great respect, appreciation and fondness.”

Rod Alferness
2008 OSA President


“I am saddened to hear of the passing of Jean Bennett. I had the opportunity to work with her when I was a graduate student. Her passion for optics, diligence and high standards inspired me. Over the years we crossed paths and in every situation she was a consummate educator, scientist, engineer and friend. She was a gracious host and a delightful story teller. I will miss her long ‘end of year’ letters as well as her friendship.”

Jim Zavislan
Associate Professor, The Institute of Optics,
Department of Dermatology, Biomedical Engineering and Ophthalmology
Director, Center for Institute Ventures
University of Rochester


“Jean was a good friend and a talented scientist. She was also very loyal to the OSA. I, too, will miss her very much.”

Joe Goodman
1992 OSA President


“I remember Jean as being passionately devoted to the ideals of the OSA and of the optical science community in general. She was a pioneer in many ways and made significant and lasting contributions to the field. It is always sad when someone of such stature passes away.”

Gary Bjorklund
1998 OSA President


“Others can speak to Jean’s scientific contributions better than I, we worked in different areas. She touched my life nonetheless.

Jean Bennett came to visit the Institute of Optics while I was a graduate student there. She had a project in mind for OSA and she was looking for a volunteer. At the time I didn’t realize that a student could get involved with OSA. Jean encouraged me and I went with it. The project was effective, which led to another project, then another, and so on. That’s how she sucked us in back then.

Jean was particularly interested in promoting young people in science. When I was writing my doctoral thesis (and seven months pregnant), she visited the Institute again and encouraged a group of graduate students to organize a seminar on work/family/career issues. She wasn’t cheerleading; she backed us with contact information for speakers and donated an award. I saw her do similar things later on, such as recommending young faculty for awards and even offering to sponsor awards from her own checkbook! She was fierce in her convictions. It is not surprising that she had so many friends all over the world, her genuine interest in young scientists was obvious. So yes, Jean Bennett a true friend to OSA and the optics community at large (and a mentor of mine). We will miss her very much.”

Susan Houde-Walter
2005 OSA President

Awards & Distinctions