Stig Hagstrom, a respected Stanford professor of materials science and engineering and beloved Swedish educator, died May 28 at Stanford Medical Center. The cause of death was a stroke; he was 78.

Stig Hagstrom portrait

Stig Hagstrom was named chairman of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford in 1986. He also served as director of Stanford’s Center for Materials Research. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Hagstrom was a pioneer in electron spectroscopy for chemical analysis in the 1960s, and was a noted expert in surface sciences and thin-film deposition processes. His work had a major impact on scientific understanding of surface chemistry and physics.

He and his collaborators developed “soft X-rays” for use in studying oxidation of aluminum and he was among the first to use synchrotron radiation in spectroscopy.

“It was Hagstrom, in 1968, who suggested to Stanford Professor William Spicer that synchrotron radiation offered great possibilities for condensed-matter science, leading to the creation of what would become the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL),” said friend and fellow Stanford Professor Emeritus Arthur Bienenstock. “Stig had tremendous impact on Stanford, the nation and the world.”

Stig B. Hagstrom was born in Barkeryd, Sweden, in 1932 and educated at the University of Uppsala, where he earned BS, MS, PhD and DSc degrees, primarily in physics, but he was also a student of mathematics, chemistry and organic chemistry.

While a graduate student, his thesis advisor was Kai Siegbahn, who with “his collaborators” would win the Nobel Prize in physics in 1983 for use of electron spectroscopy in chemical analysis. It was widely acknowledged that Siegbahn’s most important collaborator was Hagstrom, a graduate student who went uncredited. Hagstrom himself would later serve as a Nobel jurist.

He began his professorial career as an assistant professor at the University of Uppsala before moving to the United States in the mid-1960s, where he held positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory at the University of California. He began teaching at Stanford during this period as well, serving as a visiting professor.

In 1969, Hagstrom helped found Linköping University in his native Sweden. He was among the first professors appointed at the new university and served as chair of the Science Department, where he established the university’s first graduate and undergraduate science programs. Additionally, he was twice elected to four-year terms as vice chancellor of the university, first in 1970 and again in 1974.

During his second term at Linköping, Hagstrom took a leave of absence to join the General Sciences Laboratory at Xerox’s storied Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). He first served as associate manager and principal scientist at PARC, and later as manager overseeing a staff of 55 people in research and development of electronic materials and devices.

Hagstrom would eventually rise to senior research fellow before leaving PARC to become chairman of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford in 1986. He also served as director of Stanford’s Center for Materials Research.

Hagstrom was revered in Sweden, and became a friend and confidant to royalty and national leaders. In 1992, he was appointed chancellor of the Swedish university system, where he undertook a vast restructuring of the country’s 37 colleges and universities and assumed responsibility for some 150,000 students.

He described his goal as chancellor as nothing less than the remediation of Sweden’s “negative intellectual balance of trade” through a concerted effort to retain the best Swedish scholars and attract talent from abroad. His plan ran counter to the preceding decade-and-a-half of högskola, a centralized system designed to educate more working-class Swedes and turn out students fit for clearly defined career tracks.

“I believe in competition,” asserted Hagstrom at the time. “Competition brings better students. It also breeds diversity.”

In 2001, Hagstrom became co-director of the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning (SCIL), an interdisciplinary center that conducts scholarly research to advance the science, technology and practice of learning and teaching. In that role, he was a key figure behind the creation of the Wallenberg Global Learning Center and its showcase Wallenberg Hall, a “technologically agile” home for research in university-level classroom learning through experimentation in new methods of education. SCIL included corresponding learning labs in Sweden.

“Stig’s influence is hard to overestimate. He worked hard and effectively to build mutually beneficial relationships between Stanford and Sweden,” said Bienenstock. “The results of his contributions have been felt throughout Stanford University, most obviously at the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning and the Wallenberg Global Learning Network, but also at SSRL.”

Among his many honors, Hagstrom was knighted by the King of Sweden and was a recipient of the Royal Order of the Seraphim, a Swedish Royal order of chivalry created in 1748. Hagstrom served as chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering Sciences in Sweden and as an adjunct member of the Nobel Committee for the Physics Prize from 1988-2000, where he helped select winners of the prestigious prize.

Hagstrom was a member of the American Physical Society, the American Vacuum Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Physical Society, the Swedish Physical Society and the IEEE. He authored or co-authored more than 100 scientific and technical papers, as well as numerous publications on higher education.

Hagstrom married Brita-Stina (Felldin) on June 23, 1957. She died in 2006. He is survived by four children: Anders Hagstrom of Menlo Park, Calif.; Mats Hagstrom of San Francisco; Karin Hagstrom, also of Menlo Park; and Lisa Hagstrom of Berkeley; as well as five grandchildren and fiancée Michele Marincovich.

A memorial service will be held at the Stanford Memorial Church on Tuesday, June 14, at 2 p.m., followed by a reception at the Stanford Faculty Club at 3 p.m. The family has asked that donations be made to the Stig and Brita-Stina Hagstrom Memorial Scholarship Fund through

Andrew Myers is associate director of communications at the School of Engineering.