Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • THOMAS H. LEE (1923-2001)



    THOMAS H. LEE (né Li Tien Ho), Philip Sporn Professor of Energy Processing (Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died February 4, 2001, at age 77. He was born May 11, 1923, in Yangchow, China. He attended National Chiao Tung University (now Shanghai Jiao Tong University), where he was a varsity table tennis star—indeed, the pan-Asia doubles champion—and received a BS in mechanical engineering in 1946.

    His college education was interrupted by the Japanese occupation of Shanghai; he left school and his family and enlisted in China’s National Revolutionary Army. He did not see combat with the Japanese but came under fire by farmers sympathetic with the communist army as the Chinese civil war resumed after the Japanese surrender.

    After graduation, Tom joined General Electric in Shanghai. In July 1948 he and wife Kin Ping left for the United States on a path that took them to Union College, where Tom earned an MS in electrical engineering in 1950, and then Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he received a PhD in 1954 for research on electrical arcs. He worked at General Electric throughout his education, and was allowed to do the laboratory work for his thesis there.

    During his 30-year GE career he developed a copper-bismuth alloy that was applied to vacuum interrupters, for which he received the first of 30 US patents, which included his development of the first silicon rectifier.

    GE had bought the patent for the idea of a vacuum interruptor (i.e., a device in a vacuum for high-power switching), but previous research teams had not succeeded in making the idea work. Tom learned about the state of the art of vacuum systems, the characteristics of various materials at high temperatures, principles of zone refining, and the geometries of interrupters. He got an idea from a metallurgical journal about putting small amounts of impurities in copper contacts, which enabled the contacts to withstand problems (e.g., welding shut) in the face of high-power arcs. This work enabled GE to announce the first power vacuum circuit breaker in 1961.

    Concurrent with his tenure at General Electric Tom was an adjunct professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.

    In 1980 he left GE to join MIT as a visiting research scientist. He became a member of the electrical engineering faculty the following year and in 1982 was named the Philip Sporn Professor of Energy Processing. He also became director of the Electric Power Systems Engineering Laboratory and associate director of the Energy Laboratory. He taught a course on electromagnetics in the Electrical Engineering Department and began to get involved in some management courses, including the Management of Technology (MOT) program cosponsored by the Sloan School of Management and the School of Engineering. His leadership of his laboratory led to his role as director of a combination of related MIT laboratories under the new name Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems (LEES).

    In 1984 Tom took leave from MIT and was appointed director of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna, Austria, where, under his leadership, the East-West research institute was financially restructured and remains a vibrant entity today. His research while at IIASA and with other international colleagues led to his coauthorship of Energy Aftermath: How We Can Learn from the Blunders of the Past to Create a Hopeful Energy Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 1989).

    In 1988 Tom retired from MIT and the following year cofounded the Center for Quality Management (CQM) with Alexander V. D’Arbeloff and Raymond S. Stata (NAE 1992). With Tom as president (1990–98) the center became the focal point for development of methods and metrics of quality management. He also coauthored, with Shoji Shiba and Robert Chapman Wood, Integrated Management Systems: A Practical Approach to Transforming Organizations (Wiley, 1999).

    For the National Academies, Tom served on the Panel on State-of-the-Art Study and Evaluation of Statistical Quality Control Procedures (1991–93), NAS Delegation to the 1993 Pacific Science Inter-Congress and the Pacific Science Council (chair), Committee on International Organizations and Programs (1990–93), the Mitigation Subpanel (chair, 1990–91) and Synthesis Panel (1989–91) for Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming, and executive committee of the NAE’s Energy Agenda for the 1990s (1987–88), among others.

    In addition to his election to the NAE (1975), Tom was recognized as a fellow of the IEEE, from which he received the Haraden Pratt Award (1983) “For meritorious service to the Institute, for the development of the IEEE Energy Committee, and for promoting public understanding of energy Issues.”

    At the time of his death Tom was working with Transparency International studying worldwide anticorruption tactics and organizing a CQM chapter in Shanghai.

    Tom’s wife Kin Ping died in 2019. She was a power in her own right as a designer and the creator of a series of women’s clothing boutiques. She oversaw the education of their three sons, all of whom graduated from Harvard and live in Boston. The oldest, William, is an intellectual property attorney and senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation; he is married to Leslie Diggs Lee. The younger two, Thomas Jr. (Soheyla Gharib) and Richard (Susan Powers), became professors of medicine at Harvard Medical School and are cardiologists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. There are eight grandchildren, all of whom had close relationships with their grandfather.

    Tom and Kin Ping each had their ashes divided, with half scattered in Martha’s Vineyard and the other half off the Bund in Shanghai.