Richard Pantell, expert in fields ranging from lasers to the environment, dies at 91

Electrical engineering professor wrote textbooks, taught tennis in East Palo Alto, helped homeless.

Richard H. Pantell, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University, died March 26, 2019, at his home in San Mateo, California. He was 91.

Richard Pantell

Richard Pantell (Image credit: Jodi Sato)

Pantell was an engineer of diverse interests. He helped design technologies for microwave radios that are fundamental in long-distance communications today and made advances in laser technology. He also helped develop a safer form of X-ray imaging that required less radiation and allowed doctors to peer through body tissue to observe, among other things, blood flowing in the veins.

“Dick’s intellectual interests spanned a wide range, leading him over time to give well researched public lectures on subjects from Cosmology and CRISPR to Lincoln and Mark Twain,” said long-time electrical engineering colleague and friend, Jim Gibbons, former dean of the School of Engineering. “He brought a characteristic depth to everything he did.”

Pantell earned his doctorate at Stanford in 1954 and garnered an early professional reputation with his doctoral dissertation on the synthesis of passive networks. After graduating, Pantell became assistant professor at Stanford the same year and remained on the faculty until his retirement in 1994. He became a full professor in 1962. In 1989, Pantell was named director of the multidisciplinary Ginzton Laboratory that operates at the intersection where engineering and the basic sciences meet.

Despite early notoriety in networks synthesis, Pantell’s research interests would evolve frequently over his four-decade career and included work in microwaves, lasers, non-linear optics, a safer form of medical X-rays and quantum electronics. He was co-author of two textbooks, the best known being 1969’s Introduction to Quantum Electronics. Pantell also made a diversion into the budding field of environmental modeling in a book he co-edited in 1974, Environmental Modeling: Analysis and Management. He likewise published many dozens of peer-reviewed papers, held several patents and also served as editor of the journal Opto-Electronics.

Richard Pantell, shown in 1979

Richard Pantell, shown in 1979, pursued research interests over his long career ranging from microwaves and lasers to quantum electronics. (Image credit: Chuck Painter)

Pantell was a self-described “strong liberal” who wrote frequent opinion pieces and participated in lectures and debates on campus, including one arguing against the death penalty.

Pantell was born in the Bronx, New York, on Christmas Day, 1927. His parents were first-generation Americans of Eastern European Jewish descent.  His father was a hosiery salesman; his mother sold encyclopedias. The Depression proved hard on the family and the Pantells moved frequently during Richard’s childhood

Pantell attended Bronx High School of Science in New York and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before moving to Stanford in 1951 to enter the doctoral program. He married Leona (Siff) Pantell in 1952 and they had two daughters together. The marriage lasted 43 years until Leona’s death in 1996. Leona Pantell earned her BA at Stanford in 1953 and became one of the first women to graduate from Stanford Law School, where she earned her LLB in 1956.

Pantell’s personal interests included photography, hiking, traveling and, especially, tennis, which he taught on a volunteer basis to children in East Palo Alto. Even into his 80s, Pantell volunteered at Downtown Streets Team, a program which helped the homeless — many of whom were ex-convicts — to find work. His engineering interests never waned, however. At the time of his death Pantell was working in neutron physics and was trying to commercialize a small neutron generator for use in radiology.

Pantell is survived by his partner of 18 years, Carol Bergman, and two daughters, Susan Pantell of Austin, TX, and Laurie Pantell of Oakland, CA.

A memorial service will be held at the Stanford Faculty Club from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 11, 2019. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations in the name of Richard Harris Pantell be made to Downtown Streets Team.