In Memoriam: Emmett Leith

December 23, 2005

In Memoriam: Emmett Leith

Emmett LeithEmmett Leith, the Schlumberger Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan died on December 23, 2005 at the age of 78 after suffering a stroke the previous day. Professor Leith made seminal contributions that established the place of coherent optics in radar systems and is credited, along with his colleague Juris Upatnieks, of developing modern holography in the early 1960's. The hoiographic techniques developed by Leith and Upatnieks allowed the images of 3-D real world objects to be captured on photographic film. When the film was viewed under proper illumination, the full 3-D images reappeared, and these images had all the properties of the original objects, including full parallax. According to Leith, "One could move one's head and peer behind obscuring structures, to see what was hidden behind, just as if one were viewing the original objects themselves." The results, as reported at the Annual Optical Society of America Meeting in 1963, were dramatic and created a worldwide interest in holography.

Much of Leith's holographic work was an outgrowth of his research on synthetic aperture radar (SAR) performed while a member of the Radar Laboratory of the University of Michigan's Willow Run Laboratory beginning in 1953. This earlier work had military value and remained classified until 1968. As part of this effort, Leith contributed to the development of new optical techniques to process SAR data, allowing high-resolution radar images to be obtained for the first time. These contributions included the first coherent cross-correlator, the introduction of the wavefront reconstruction view-point to explain SAR optical processing, and the introduction of coherent optics to perform pulse compression of chirped radar pulses. The concept of wavefront reconstruction was, unbeknownst to Leith, closely related to the work performed eight years earlier by Dennis Gabor. Gabor had performed his work as a means of improving the quality of images in electron microscopy, and he received the Nobel Prize in 1971 for his wavefront reconstruction principle, dubbed holoscopy.

As internationally renowned as he was as a researcher and inventor, Leith was also a dedicated and inspiring educator both in the classroom and in the laboratory. His class on Optical Processing and Holography- an introduction both to future researchers as well as a beautiful illustration of the power of Fourier analysis in optical engineering to non-optics students- always received top ratings at Michigan. His classes were his first priority and he was always available to students Leith had a profound passion and an extraordinary physical intuition for optics and optical processing. A generous collaborator and mentor, Leith taught and inspired by example. He instilled a passion for understanding and invention in his students, who he treated as true and equal collaborators to seed the optical industry and academia with several generations of researchers who have contributed in fields of optics well beyond optical processing and holography.

Born in Detroit, Leith received a B.S. and M.S. degree in physics and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering all from Wayne State University located in Detroit, Michigan. He spent his entire 52 year scientific career at University of Michigan and was due to retire at the end of last year. Leith supervised more than forty Ph.D. students during his career, many of who went on to make significant scientific and engineering contributions.

Leith received the National Medal of Science from President Jimmy Carter in 1979. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of the Optical Society of America (OSA), and a member of OSA since 1961. In addition, he was the recipient of the OSA Fredric Ives Medal in 1985. This medal recognizes overall distinction in optics and is the highest award of the Society. Leith also played an active role in the organization, serving various OSA Committees during his time as a member.

Leith is survived by June, his wife of 49 years, and their two daughters, Pam Wilder of San Jose, Calif., and Kim Leith of Baltimore, as well as three grandchildren.

On a personal note, Leith was a rather quiet man but one whose words were powerful and wise. He had a reserved but very witty humor. As a thesis advisor he guided, challenged, supported and nurtured his students while clearly expecting and accepting nothing less than excellence. A generous and truly caring man, he frequently drove to Optical Society Meetings as far away as Boston and Washington, D.C. so that he could bring students who otherwise would not have been able to attend. He loved nature; had a plot of land where he enjoyed walks. He grew an orange tree in frigid Michigan, and as it grew, built a structure around it to protect it. Leith will be profoundly missed by his students, colleagues and friends who have so immensely benefited from having the great privilege of knowing and working with him. Fortunately for all, his legacy lives on.

This obituary was contributed by OSA member Kim Winick and OSA Vice President, Rod Alferness, long-time friends and colleagues of Emmett Leith.