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April 11, 2006

Thomas Connolly, professor emeritus and nuclear engineer, dies at 83

By Emily Saarman

Thomas Connolly, a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering who taught nuclear science, died April 3 at a retirement community in Saratoga after a long illness. He was 83.

A member of the Stanford faculty since 1959, Connolly headed a now defunct nuclear engineering laboratory. At a small experimental nuclear reactor located on campus, he conducted experiments that helped the first computerized design of power-generating nuclear reactors, explained his longtime colleague Rudolph Sher, also a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering.

"In those years, computer codes for designing reactors were coming into being, and they needed a lot of the measurement information to put into the codes," Sher said. "The work that Tom did supplied the experimental values of those numbers."

Connolly's experimental work contributed to the design of safe and reliable nuclear reactors, but his true calling was teaching. The American Nuclear Society elected him as a fellow in 1987 for his "contributions to various areas of nuclear engineering, for his outstanding teaching and for his wise and reasoned contribution to public understanding of nuclear issues."

Connolly published numerous technical articles about nuclear energy and wrote a widely used textbook, The Foundations of Nuclear Engineering.

"His students were really his foremost concern in his life, after his family, of course," his wife, Helen Connolly, said. "He was very interested in the work his students were doing and he kept in touch with many of them."

When the small experimental nuclear reactor was shut down after a budget reorganization in 1972, Connolly turned his focus to the economics of building and running nuclear power plants, Sher said. Connolly and his students did early work in optimizing the use of plutonium in nuclear fuels. During this time, Connolly became a strong and outspoken advocate of nuclear power. He gave testimony before the California State Assembly in 1975 opposing the Nuclear Safeguards Initiative, which would have limited the use of nuclear power in California. The initiative was voted down in 1976.

Although Connolly had strong opinions that he frequently expressed in interviews with the media and in numerous letters to the editor of the Campus Report (which became Stanford Report in 1995), his colleagues remember him as a man who enjoyed calm, reasoned discussions┬Śnot arguments. "I've seen him in public debates," Sher said. "He always kept his cool. He was an easy person to be around."

Connolly believed that nuclear power was a safe and environmentally friendly way to meet the nation's growing electrical demands. He predicted that nuclear and coal plants would be the two most important sources of power in the last quarter of the 20th century, but coal, he argued, was both inefficient and dirty.

"He had always been a big advocate of using nuclear energy for electricity, not for weapons," said Lawrence Crowley, a professor emeritus of surgery at Stanford Medical School and a friend of Connolly's.

Like any responsible nuclear engineer, Connolly also was concerned about proper disposal of nuclear waste. He fought to implement a central waste disposal facility at Ward Valley in the Mojave Desert to ensure that low-level nuclear waste was disposed of safely and consistently. After a long and heated battle, plans for the Ward Valley site were finally abandoned in 2002.

Connolly was born to an Irish immigrant family in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1923. He entered Syracuse University at age 16 and graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering in 1943.

During World War II, the Army sent him to Los Alamos, N.M., where he purified uranium for the atomic bomb. There, he purchased a horse from the cavalry for $50 and spent his weekends riding through spectacular scenery of the nearby mountains and camping out on sheepskins he bought from a local shepherd.

After the war, Connolly earned his master's degree in chemical engineering from Carnegie Technical Institute (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1947 and his doctorate in chemical engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1950. He then joined the University of California-Los Angeles, where he taught nuclear engineering for nine years. There he met his wife, Helen, a young woman from Minneapolis whom he jokingly referred to as "his girl from Lake Wobegon." They had four children who are all above average┬Śthree are engineers and one is a doctor.

Connolly came to Stanford in 1959 and taught nuclear engineering until his retirement in 1988. Friends and family remember him as the prototypical absent-minded professor complete with a bicycle that he rode to work every day. "He always wore a bow tie and insisted on tying his own ties," Helen Connolly said. "It was so hard to get them that I had to make them myself."

Connolly is survived by Helen, of Saratoga Retirement Community; sons Mark of Panama City, Fla.; Steven of Broomfield, Colo.; and James of Boston; daughter M. Kari of San Francisco; and two granddaughters.

A memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. May 2 in Memorial Church.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Connolly's memory to Stanford University for the Fellowship Fund of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Checks should be made out to Stanford University and mailed to: Gift Processing, P.O. Box 20466, Stanford, CA 94305. For further information, call (866) 543-0243 or (650) 724-0627 or visit the website

Emily Saarman is a science-writing intern at Stanford News Service.

Editor Note:

Science-writing intern Emily Saarman wrote this release. A photo of Connolly is available on the web at



Dawn Levy, News Service: (650) 725-1944,


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