Gordon S. Kino, the former W. M. Keck Foundation Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and a professor of applied physics at Stanford University, died Oct. 9, 2017, at Stanford Hospital. He was 89. He was best known for inventing new microscopes that improved semiconductor manufacturing and transformed medical diagnostics.

Gordon S. Kino, circa 2004

Gordon S. Kino, circa 2004 (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford Office of Technology Licensing)

Kino was a man of remarkably broad technical interests, with at least 119 patents to his credit. He began his career in microwaves, veered into semiconductors and worked to dramatically improve data storage in the 1990s. He also served as one of the pioneers of an intellectual shift that has transformed academia at Stanford and beyond – the need for interdisciplinary research to solve society’s biggest challenges.

Kino, however, is perhaps best known as the inventor of the ultra-fast confocal scanning optical microscope that became indispensable in the semiconductor industry. His microscope made it possible to inspect cross-sections of freshly minted computer chips for fatal flaws without damaging the chips.

Kino was a member of Stanford’s Ginzton Laboratory, where other prolific inventors, including applied physicists Calvin Quate and John Shaw, would gather at 10 a.m. each Friday for coffee and doughnuts. Those coffee klatches, which inspired wide-ranging discussions between engineers and physicists, helped shape Stanford’s interdisciplinary ethos and demonstrate the value of a collaborative problem-solving approach that is widely accepted throughout the research world today.

“The number of fields he excelled in is just unbelievable. He started in WWII-era technology –  klystrons and the like – and ended up in semiconductors and surface waves and fiber optics,” said former student Armand Neukermans, also a distinguished inventor and entrepreneur. Neukermans credits Kino’s breadth to his acute insight into the physical world, his facility with mathematics and, especially, his skill as an experimentalist. With that combination of talent, Kino was not only able to theorize, but to demonstrate why his hunches were right.

Gifted researcher

Although he retired officially in 1997, Kino continued to work tirelessly on what stands out as perhaps his most useful invention, the dual-axis confocal microscope – a minimally invasive fiber-optic camera that could examine human tissue within the body without need of destructive biopsies. The technology is now commonplace at leading hospitals.

His collaborators on that project were Mike Mandella, a research assistant in his lab, and imaging expert Chris Contag, a former Stanford radiology professor who is now at Michigan State University. Mandella remembered Kino’s keen technical insight that yielded a microscope “capable of producing remarkable images of human cancers of the esophagus, stomach and colon without taking samples.”

Contag recalled Kino’s spirit: “He was very energetic – full of ideas. Well into his eighties, he would come to every lab meeting. Beyond that, he was just the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. He cared about his students. He cared about his colleagues. He was just a great guy.”

Kino was a humble researcher, reluctant to tout his own impact and quick to share credit. Speaking of one of his data storage technologies, which worked in the lab but failed to commercialize due to technical challenges of mass production, Kino was forthright: “What you demonstrate in a university is one thing. In industry, if you want to make thousands and thousands of something that are exactly alike, it’s a different story.”

Dedicated teacher

In addition to his profound impact on science, his ease with math and experimentation, and the many successes he enjoyed as an inventor, Gordon Kino was equally dedicated to being a teacher and a mentor, Neukermans said. He helped shepherd more than 70 students to their doctorates, many of whom went on to do research or take leadership roles in industry.

In a speech at Kino’s retirement party, Neukermans remembered the Ginzton Lab on a typical late afternoon, awash with the sighing of overworked graduate students whose experiments were not going as planned. Around 5:30 p.m., just as most would be making their way home, a “different sound” would fill the halls. A deep, hearty, full-belly laugh, according to Neukermans. It was Gordon Kino making the rounds, catching up with students on the week’s results, good or bad.

“I learned a lot from Gordon. I owe him a debt of gratitude that is impossible to repay,” said one of those students, Stanford research professor Butrus “Pierre” Khuri-Yakub. “He was a great teacher, researcher, and human being, and will be missed by all those who knew him and worked with him.”

Always on the cutting edge

Gordon Stanley Kino was born June 15, 1928, in Melbourne, Australia, but grew up in London, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics at London University. He then moved to the United States to join the doctoral program in electrical engineering at Stanford, earning his doctorate in 1955.

“My father always wanted to be at the most cutting of cutting-edge technology. That’s why he came from England to Stanford,” his daughter Carol Kino said.

After earning his doctorate, Kino met and married Dorothy Lovelace, who, like him, was a former Londoner transplanted to California. He then took a position in industry at the famed Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. He worked there from 1955 to 1957 before accepting a research position at Stanford with his mentor, the “godfather” of microwave technology and klystron tube pioneer, Marvin Chodorow. In 1961, Kino joined the teaching faculty in the Stanford Department of Electrical Engineering, becoming a full professor in 1965. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1967.

Kino and Lovelace would have one child, Carol, who grew up on the Stanford campus watching her indefatigable father pursue his research. She recalled him continuing to come to campus to work on the confocal microscope until physical infirmity from Parkinson’s disease made it impossible for him to scale the stairs to his lab. His final patent was filed in 2014 and issued in July 2017, just months before his death.

Kino was the author of three books, chapters in three other texts, and at least 440 peer-reviewed technical papers. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering, won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967, and was a fellow in the IEEE, AAAS and the American Physical Society.

In another retirement anecdote, former student Kent Peterson, of the Stanford Research Institute, paid homage to Kino’s influence: “Solving a defined problem is only a tithe of the research art. The other 90 percent is articulating an interesting problem that is both unsolved and solvable. You are a master of the art. I thank you for sharing your gift – with your characteristic generosity, optimism and boundless energy.”

Kino is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and his daughter, Carol. Memorial donations may be made in the name of Gordon S. Kino to Doctors Without Borders or the Michael J. Fox Foundation.