To Willis Whitfield the idea seemed simple; to keep a research lab free of dust particles, why not let air be the janitor? Whitfield, the inventor of the clean room, would change the world of technology, electronics, hospitals, labs, and even NASA.
The 1952 graduate of Hardin-Simmons University died November 12, 2012, at the age of 92 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Whitfield graduated with a B.S. in physics and mathematics. He went on to pursue graduate studies at George Washington University after accepting a position at the Naval Research Lab in Maryland from 1952 to 1954, where he supervised research on solid rocket fuels and motors.
It was there that his innovative methodology caught the attention of Sandia Labs in New Mexico, one of the nation's most sensitive defense research centers.
While at Sandia Labs, Whitfield was project leader for advanced development studies of microwave propagation measurements and contamination control /clean room development. It was there that the vision of the Laminar Flow Clean Room became a reality and the world and all of its future possibilities changed.
His clean rooms blew air in from the ceiling and sucked it out from the floor. Filters scrubbed the air before it entered the room. Gravity helped particles exit. Such a simple concept, but no one had tried it before.
Willis held three patents, two of which were the Laminar Clean Room and the Laminar Flow Bench. The third patent was a sludge irradiation device.
His bit of engineering genius would open up the world of miniaturizing electronic and mechanical components with the introduction of contamination-free laboratories. Most modern electronic devices, from iPods to communications satellites use micro-electronics made possible by Whitfield.
The emerging field of nanotechnology would not be possible without a particle-free environment and, likewise, hospitals and pharmaceutical firms continue to make extensive use of the technology that dropped the rate of surgical infection and allowed pharmaceutical manufacturers to guarantee a pure product.
Peers were just as quick to recognize Willis for enabling entire new fields of research and product technology. Receiving numerous awards, Whitfield was recognized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers with the Holley Medal in 1969, which put Whitfield in the company of such people as Henry Ford for the automobile, Edwin Land for the Polaroid Land camera, William Shockley for the transistor, and Elmer Sperry for the gyroscope.
Also in his honor, Clean Room Magazine named Dr. Whitfield as its first Hall of Fame inductee, and the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology presents an annual Willis J. Whitfield Award for substantial contributions to the field of contamination control.
Whitfield was recognized by both the New Mexico Society of Professional Engineers and the Scottish Society of Contaminations Control for outstanding pioneering discoveries in clean room technology and outstanding contributions to economic development. Sandia Labs commissioned a statue of Whitfield, now a prominent feature of the courtyard of the new Microsystems and Engineering Science Applications Laboratory.
Whitfield received an honorary doctorate in science degree from HSU in 1970, and in 2006 Whitfield was inducted into the HSU Hall of Leaders.
Whitfield retired from Sandia Labs in 1984 after 30 years of service. He is survived by his wife, Belva, also an HSU graduate; son, Joe Ray and wife, Joy, of Portland, Oregon; son, James Donald of Albuquerque, New Mexico; a brother, Lawrence Whitfield; and sister, Amy Blackburn, both from Dallas, Texas.