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Orson Cutler Shepard, materials science pioneer, dies

Orson Cutler Shepard, professor emeritus of materials science and engineering, died of heart failure Oct. 16 at his campus home. The pillar of a family with ties to the university that reach three generations, Shepard was the father of Roger Shepard, the Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor Emeritus of Psychology. Known to his family and friends as Cutler, Shepard, 94, was a member of the Stanford community for 75 years and laid the foundation for the university's achievements in materials science.

"He was a kind of quiet pioneer," said materials science and engineering Professor William Nix. "He really was the person who initiated science-based materials at Stanford. There were others later involved, but he kind of showed us the way."

Born in 1902, Shepard grew up on a prune and walnut orchard in San Jose. He earned a bachelor's degree in mining and metallurgy from Stanford in 1925 and an engineering degree here in 1928. After working as an assistant mill superintendent in a gold and silver mine in Mexico, Shepard returned to Stanford to join the mining and metallurgy faculty. Through the 1930s, he taught courses in process metallurgy and ceramics. That phase of his career culminated with the publication of his textbook on fire assaying, which was published in 1940 by McGraw-Hill.

With the advent of World War II, Shepard shifted into the field of physical metallurgy and made major changes in the way metallurgy was taught at Stanford. He developed new courses that emphasized the scientific approach to the study of materials and laid a foundation for the field of materials science. In the late 1940s Shepard was one of the first faculty members at Stanford to conduct sponsored research on materials. His work focused on the effects of environment on the creep of metals, wetting and mass transfer in solid metal-liquid metal systems, and materials problems in nuclear reactors. One of his doctoral students, Thomas Paine, went on to head NASA during some of the early lunar missions.

In 1957, Shepard was named head of the newly formed department of metallurgy, which he transformed into the department of materials science in the School of Engineering in just three years. He served as the first chair of that department from 1960 to 1967, during a period of rapid growth. By the late 1960s, Shepard's department had become one of the top-ranked materials science departments in the country, a distinction it still holds.

As chair of the department, Shepard, along with his wife, Grace, who died in 1996, opened their home to faculty and their families. "He was a quiet and gracious leader and one who I think helped to establish in those days a sense of family fellowship among the faculty and their spouses around the department," said Richard Bube, professor emeritus of materials science and electrical engineering, whom Shepard hired in the early '60s.

Shepard retired from the faculty in 1968, but maintained an active interest in department and university affairs until just before his death. When the department celebrated his 90th birthday in 1992, Shepard marked the occasion by writing a historical sketch of the development of metallurgy and materials science at Stanford and a biographical sketch of his Stanford career. The department published the work as a booklet.

Shepard retired the year his son, Roger Shepar, joined the university's psychology faculty. Roger attributes his own life-long interest in science to his father's early stimulation and encouragement.

In addition to Roger, Shepard is survived by his daughter, Cynthia, of Stanford; grandsons Newland of Palo Alto and Todd of Arizona; granddaughter Shenna Shepard and her husband, Joseph Tansey, of Pepperell, Mass.; niece Diana Mortimore of Sacramento and her husband, Joel, and daughters Kristen of San Francisco and Jill of Los Angeles.

Contributions may be made in Shepard's honor to the O.C. Shepard Fund, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Stanford University, Stanford CA 94305, or to the Mid-Peninsula Hospice, 201 San Antonio Circle, Suite 135, Mountain View, CA 94040.

A campus memorial service will be announced at a later date.


By Elaine Ray

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