William Spicer, emeritus professor of engineering, dies at 74

William E. Spicer

William E. Spicer

William E. Spicer, a celebrated inventor and mentor who taught at Stanford for more than 40 years and co-founded the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL), died of heart failure while vacationing in London on June 6. He was 74. Services have been held.

Best known for the development of photoemission spectroscopy, Spicer pioneered image-intensification technology. His biggest commercial successes live on in medical imaging devices and military night-vision goggles.

"The breadth and depth of his contributions [are] perhaps indicated in part by the fact that his work created opportunities for Ph.D. students in physics, applied physics, [electrical engineering] and materials science, and at SLAC [the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center]," said James Gibbons, a research professor in electrical engineering. "The work itself was of a consistently high standard and was mentioned at one stage as being of Nobel-prize quality."

In an e-mail, John Pollard, senior scientist at the Army's Night Vision Laboratory in Ft. Belvoir, Va., wrote: "Our night vision capability today stems from his efforts, and our soldiers owe a debt of gratitude to Professor Spicer for his vision, insight and deep understanding. We have lost a true giant."

Spicer was born Sept. 7, 1929, in Baton Rouge, La. He overcame a poor boyhood school system, dyslexia and a speech defect to earn a bachelor's degree in physics in 1949 from the College of William and Mary, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the age of 19. He earned a second bachelor's degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951 and master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Missouri in 1953 and 1955, respectively.

His "disabilities" may have been a key to his success. In 1981, he told Industrial Research & Development magazine: "I have since learned from my wife, Diane, who is a reading specialist, that how one learns is dependent very much on how one's mind is 'wired up.' People like I have to learn to think in different patterns from the norm. Not till after I got my Ph.D. did I learn that my pattern of thought is essentially pictorial, whereas for most scientists it is mathematical. So I have a very different approach to problems."

That approach likely contributed to his authorship of more than 700 publications. One of the 50 most cited authors between 1982 and 1997, Spicer was an expert in the electronic structure of solids with emphasis on surfaces and interfaces, and synchrotron radiation photoemission studies of semiconductors.

Spicer worked at RCA Research Laboratories in Princeton, N.J., from 1955 to 1962, developing a fundamental understanding of the physics of photocathodes, major components of image intensifiers.

"Bill started his career at RCA laboratories working on photocathodes, which were the 'eyes' of the original TV cameras," Piero Pianetta, a research professor in electrical engineering and at SSRL, wrote in an e-mail. "Through the study of these devices, he developed a keen understanding of the photoemission process which became his career."

In photoemission, light strikes a material and the interaction causes electrons to emerge. Data about the energy of the emerging electrons combined with knowledge of how light excited the electrons gives insight into the electronic structure of the solid.

This knowledge found application in TV pictures and "electric eyes." As a consultant to Varian, Spicer invented an improved X-ray image intensifier that made its way into medical devices worldwide. The intensifier increased image brightness by a factor of 10,000, allowing objects such as kidney stones to be seen for the first time. The device also allowed doctors to look at televised X-ray images of the human body in real time, to examine, for example, blood vessels in the heart prior to a bypass operation.

Spicer came to Stanford in 1962 to help build the solid state physics program in the Electrical Engineering Department, which was needed to complement and support Stanford's electronics effort, Gibbons said. Spicer was also a faculty member in the departments of materials science and engineering and, by courtesy, applied physics.

Recognizing that synchrotron radiation could provide a superior excitation source, Spicer wrote to SLAC Director W.K.H. Panofsky to explore the possibility of using radiation produced by the linear accelerator and later stored in a hollow ring for experiments in fields besides high-energy physics. As a result, and with the efforts of professors Sebastian Doniach, Herman Winick and Ingolf Lindau; graduate students Brian Kinkaid, Sally Hunter and Pianetta; and Vice Provost Arthur Bienenstock, the first port was added on the Stanford Positron Electron Accelerating Ring (SPEAR), which was put into operation for high-energy physics under the leadership of Burton Richter in the early 1970s. That and subsequent ports siphoned off beams of X-rays and ultraviolet light for use in studies of matter at the atomic and molecular scales, and paved the way for advances in condensed-matter physics, materials science, chemistry and biochemistry.

Spicer served as acting director, deputy director and consulting director of the resulting Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Project, which was renamed the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory in 1977.

He became the Stanford W. Ascherman Professor of Engineering in 1978. He was an exceptional mentor to more than 100 doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows. A 1993 story in Science magazine about Stanford as a model of "what works" in retaining underrepresented students through the completion of their physics doctorates highlighted Spicer's efforts to help students first meet their needs as human beings and then develop as researchers. That sometimes required time-consuming advising about how to make up for poor preparation or how to fully engage with the research community. In 2000, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) gave him its Lifetime Mentor Award.

A frequent adviser to government and industry, Spicer was a member of AAAS and a fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. In 1980, he won the Oliver E. Buckley Solid State Physics Prize from the APS for "effective development and application of photoelectron spectroscopy as an indispensable tool for study of bulk and surface electronic structure of solids."

In 1981, Industrial Research & Development magazine chose him as Scientist of the Year. In 1984, the American Vacuum Society gave him its senior research prize, the Medard W. Welch Award.

Spicer became an emeritus professor in 1992 but remained active in his research until his death.

His hobbies included tennis and military and postal history.

In addition to his wife, Diane, of Stanford, Spicer is survived by daughters Sally Spicer of Mountain View, Calif., and Jakki Spicer of Minneapolis, as well as two grandchildren. Spicer's son, William Spicer Jr., died in 2000.

Donations may be made to the William E. Spicer Award, SSRL, c/o Dave Dungan, SLAC MS69, 2575 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park, CA 94028. Make checks payable to Stanford University, with "W.E. Spicer Award/SSRL" on the memo line.