In Memoriam: Robert A. Gross

The Columbia Engineering community mourns the loss and celebrates the life of Robert A. Gross, a scientist, educator, and leader. Professor Gross served as the School’s 11th dean from 1982 until 1990. He passed away on February 8 at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was 90 years old.

Robert Gross joined Columbia as a Professor of Engineering Science in 1960, having already made significant contributions to the field of supersonic combustion and shock dynamics while an engineer at Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corp. His work in combustion was recognized with the Waverly Gold Medal for New Research and AIAA G. Pendray award.

At Columbia, he explored the emerging field of plasma physics and controlled fusion research. With C.K. “John” Chu, he co-founded in 1962 the Columbia Plasma Physics Laboratory which carried out sponsored research of $2 million per year for 30 years and trained more than 100 scientists and engineers. He took great pleasure teaching and advising his students including 25 doctoral candidates, many of who he continued to mentor throughout their careers. He was also recognized for his excellence in teaching by the Society of Columbia Graduates who honored him in 1974 with the Great Teacher Award. Gross also wrote a seminal textbook, Fusion Energy.

Through his research, Gross became a worldwide authority in plasma shock phenomena and the equilibrium and stability of high pressure magnetized plasma systems. He served on numerous Department of Energy advisory committees that defined the direction of fusion power research in the United States.

After serving three years as founding chair of Columbia’s Department of Applied Physics and Nuclear Engineering and six years as chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department, Gross was named the 11th dean of Columbia School of Engineering and Applied Science.

As dean, he established one of the first National Science and Technology Centers awarded by the National Science Foundation in the area of telecommunications research. Building on this initiative, Dean Gross envisioned a new research building to provide modern experimental research facilities for telecommunications, microelectronics, and computer and information systems. He successfully raised $36 million in a 40-year no-interest loan and $6 million gift from the State of New York, allowing Columbia to build a new research facility. Morris A. Schapiro Hall, or the Center for Engineering Physical Science Research, opened in 1992.

Together with his wife, Elee K. Gross, Prof. Gross spent countless hours with undergraduate and graduate students not only during the day, but also at their home in New Rochelle and then later as residents of East Campus and at their apartment on Riverside Drive. His focus on encouraging students, especially those from less privileged backgrounds and those from abroad, was in large part the reason he was so pleased that his former students and others created the Robert A. Gross Scholarship Fund

Prof. Gross was not just a man of science, but he loved a good political discussion and, with his wife Elee, they were legionary for their attendance, for decades, at Columbia football home games regardless of the weather, and for their passion for attending concerts and enjoying theater.

During his sabbaticals, Prof. Gross — who loved to travel around the world — taught and studied at Leiden University (Netherlands), Stanford University (California) and at the University of Sydney and Flinders University (Australia).

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania in 1949, Gross earned his Ph.D. in applied physics from Harvard in 1952.  Over the course of his career, he received numerous honors, including the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Fulbright-Hays Fellowship twice. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He was honored for his life's work by Fusion Power Associates in 1993.

Robert Gross, the Percy K. and Vida L.W. Hudson Professor of Applied Physics, retired from Columbia Engineering in 1995.

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