Reflections: William L. Wolfe

Jan. 17, 2017
Optics Site Image

To my grandchildren: Grego and Melissa Moore and Garrett, Elise, Erin and Colleen Wolfe. May they have as much pleasure and satisfaction in their careers as I have had in mine. (W. L. Wolfe, "Optics Made Clear: The Nature of Light and How We Use It", SPIE Press, 2006)

Even before meeting Professor Emeritus William "Bill" L. Wolfe, I felt I already had a sense of the man from his 31 words of dedication at the beginning of his book "Optics Made Clear." And since, I have come to know Bill to be as I first suspected — a man equally dedicated to the two great loves of his life, family and optics.

Bill's pioneering work in the measurement of infrared properties of materials remains the standard of reference in the field. His extensive accomplishments are recognized as some of the leading work in the field of infrared engineering. But for many, his greatest legacy is the education and mentoring of a remarkable number of graduate students. 

Early Life

Born on Easter Sunday in April 1931, Bill grew up in Yonkers, N.Y. His father, William, was a local grocer, butcher and milkman, arising at 4:00 a.m. to make deliveries. His mother, Louise, commuted to lower Manhattan by bus, train and subway to her job as a secretary at the Nestlé Company — sadly, relates Bill, they received no free chocolate. 

Bill's interest in science was kindled in high school when he took a Physics course. He saw physics as a tool to learn about the universe and to prepare him to contribute as well. But, even so, after graduation, Bill headed to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. to study chemical engineering, which he felt had a more defined career path. As a freshman-engineering student, he discovered his dislike of the slide rule, mechanical drawing and chemistry — leading him back to physics after his first semester.

Early Career

Bill Wolfe outside tent

After receiving his B.S. degree in Physics in 1953, Bill accepted a position as a research engineer and lecturer at the University of Michigan Willow Run Labs. As part of a cooperative arrangement with the Operations Research Office (ORO) — a civilian military research center founded in 1948 by the U.S. Army — Bill was chosen to go to Korea, about a month after the Korean War had ended. Aimed to help better analyze and plan strategies for future conflicts, Bill and his team would carry out experiments with the troops on the battlefield.

There were four tests but the most memorable was to determine if you could predict a division's intentions by monitoring all the rolling traffic in its area. They dutifully placed data loggers across all the roads in the area. Unfortunately for the tests, Marilyn Monroe arrived in Korea to entertain more than 100,000 service men and women. In the end, they concluded that you could definitely predict that the troops would go to watch her!

Optics Beginning

Upon his return from Korea, Bill had his choice of labs to join: Radar, Acoustics, Infrared and Operations Research. He chose the Infrared lab because it was a new field, about which he knew nothing. He has always considered this "blind choice" as his pathway to the field of optics.

Initially Bill worked in radiometry — measuring and analyzing radiation from terrain, vehicles, rockets and the like. But soon after, he was chosen to run the Infrared Information and Analysis Center devoted to disseminating and expediting information regarding infrared technology to government agencies and their contractors. 

In 1965, Bill compiled the "Handbook of Military Infrared Technology." It was sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and published by the Government Printing Office. Its success stimulated a sequel, "The Infrared Handbook" by Bill and George Zissis in 1978. It has been translated into Russian and reprinted by the Taiwanese.

Graduate Studies

Along with working full-time, Bill began to pursue a graduate degree by taking one or two courses each semester. He started his graduate career in Physics, earning a M.S. degree in 1956, but then switched to Electrical Engineering on the very good advice of then-University of Michigan professor Peter Franken. He earned his M.S.E. in 1966.

Family Life

During his time at the University of Michigan, Bill also met and married his wife, Mary Lou Bongort.

Wedding portrait Marylou and Bill

I had just returned from Korea and was living in a fraternity house on the campus of the University of Michigan. One of the brothers invited me to be a fourth at bridge with him and two girls. I accepted. Mary Lou was one of the girls. She was cute, and we were having a good time until she excused herself to study for a test scheduled for the next day. That really got to me — a cute girl who was serious about her studies — so I asked her out a few days later. We dated that summer before she finished her course work and left for her first job as a medical technologist in her hometown of Flint, Mich. The entire next year was a weekend-commuting relationship. We tied the knot at the Flint Community Presbyterian Church on June 19, 1955. 

Bill and Mary Lou were married for 60 years until she passed away in July 2015. They have three children — Carol, a medical doctor; Bardie, a financial planner; and Douglas, an aerospace engineer — and six grandchildren.


After graduation, Bill accepted a job as a chief engineer and Manager of the Electro-optic System Design Department at the Honeywell Radiation Center in Lexington, Mass. He directed the design and development of an airborne infrared recon device that later became the AN/AAD-4 system, several star trackers, horizon sensors, wire strike sensors for helicopters, laser communication systems, and driving and fire control systems for tanks.


In 1969, Bob Noble, then-director of Academic Programs for the Optical Sciences Center (OSC), "sang the siren call of academia" to Bill. He interviewed on the same day in February as former OSC director, Bob Shannon, then also living in Lexington, Mass. "We both decided this was the place for us. Who could turn down a sunny, 70-degree day in Tucson for a snowy, 30-degree one in Lexington? Not us."

Bill established the infrared program at OSC, creating three courses — Infrared Detectors, Infrared System Design and Radiometry — and a research program that started with the measurement of the refractive indices of materials from 1 to 20 μm and 20 to 500K. He and his students later developed a scatterometer that was used to measure spacecraft materials, and help establish the theory of surface scattering. They designed and constructed the Army Metrological Range and a probe to measure the greenhouse effect on Venus. He mentored some 50 students to their advanced degrees before he became (as he puts it) Professor Meritless upon his retirement in 1995.


Bill with caught trout

Since his retirement Bill has written six books, "Introduction to Infrared System Design"; "Infrared System Design Examples"; "Radiometry"; "Imaging Spectrometers"; "Optics Made Clear"; and "Rays, Waves and Photons." He is now working on two more that are tentatively titled "Modern Architectural Lighting" and "Fifty Fabulous Fishing Float Trips."

Bill has served on several government advisory committees for the Army Defense Science Board, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the U.S. Air Force and the National Bureau of Standards. He also lectured on optics to lay seniors and to elementary school children. In his spare time, he sang at assisted living centers and he still pursues the wily trout with his fly rod and reel.

He served as president of SPIE in 1989 and received the Society’s highest honor, the SPIE Gold Medal, in 1999 in recognition of his lifetime of achievement in the fields of materials measurement and infrared engineering. In 2004, Bill was awarded Bucknell University’s Success in a Chosen Career award.

Marlou and Bill Wolfe

[Editor’s Note: The Mary Lou Wolfe Memorial Graduate Student Scholarship in Optical Sciences was established in dedication of Professor Emeritus William L. Wolfe’s beloved wife who supported him through 60 years of married bliss and especially through some tough ones. She graduated from the University of Michigan magna cum laude with a degree in medical technology.]