Dr. Willis Whitfield

Physicist, BS 1952

The idea seemed simple to Willis Whitfield; he couldn’t believe someone hadn’t thought of it. To keep a research lab free of dust particles, why not let air be the janitor? The modern electronic age was born in the early 1960s. It was during this time that Willis, a Sandia National Laboratories physicist, developed a method to move filtered air through a room; removing particles that contaminate micro-electronic components. The laminar flow “clean room” was born and changed the way electronics plants, hospitals, labs, and the space agency did business.

Whitfield was born in Rosedale, Oklahoma, on December 6, 1919, while his family was temporarily working in Oklahoma. Willis’ family soon returned to Texas where he attended school and graduated from Eola High School in 1937. Following graduation, he moved to Ft. Worth to complete a two-year college course in electronics at Brantley-Draughans College. After completing the course, he owned and operated an electrical contracting business in San Angelo, Texas, from 1940 to 1941 before taking a job with the U.S. Signal Corps from 1942 to 1944 where he was a ground radar crew chief. He put on a Naval uniform the following year, serving at the Naval Proving Grounds in Dahlgren, Virginia, developing aircraft experimental electrical systems.

After his discharge from the Navy, he realized he needed more education to go further in the field of physics. “Willis chose Hardin-Simmons University because he was a good Baptist and felt that he should attend a good Baptist school, it was as simple as that,” says his wife, the former Belva Wiggins. The two met as HSU students while working at a south-side church, the Cherry Street Mission, which was sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Abilene. Willis had a car and most of the students didn’t, so Belva often rode with Willis to church. The friendship that began at HSU became a love and a marriage that is still growing stronger, even after 56 years.

Whitfield graduated from Hardin-Simmons University in 1952 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 here that his innovative methodology caught the attention of Sandia Labs in New Mexico, one of the nation’s most sensitive defense research centers. Sandia develops technologies to sustain, modernize, and protect the nation’s nuclear arsenal, prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, defend against terrorism, protect national infrastructures, ensure stable energy and water supplies, and provide new capabilities to the armed forces. He stayed with Sandia from 1954 to 1984.

While at Sandia Labs, he was project leader for advanced development studies of microwave propagation measurements, contamination control and 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.

Willis holds three patents, two of which were the laminar clean room and the laminar flow bench. The third patent was the sludge irradiation device. He has published 47 papers on topics ranging from contamination control to the operation of a gamma irradiation facility. He has also been a lecture speaker at over 150 conferences and seminars on clean room technology.

The engineering world was literally set on its ear by the prospect of miniaturizing electronic and mechanical components with the introduction of contamination-free laboratories. Most modern electronic devices, from I-Pods to communications satellites, use micro-electronics. It’s hard to imagine life without a cell phone or laptop computer; products whose miniaturized electronics are produced in clean rooms. The emerging field of nanotechnology would be unimaginable without a particle-free environment. Hospitals and pharmaceutical firms were quick to recognize the benefit and now make extensive use of the technology. Surgical infection rates dropped dramatically, and for the first time, pharmaceutical manufacturers were able to guarantee a pure product. The economic impact of Willis Whitfield’s clean rooms is absolutely incalculable.

Peers were just as quick to recognize Willis for enabling entire new fields of research and product technology, and he has received numerous awards. Among them, Whitfield was recognized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers with the Holley Medal in 1969, for the unique concept of the laminar flow clean room principle. In receiving this award, he was included in the company of such people as Henry Ford for the automobile, Edwin Land for the Polaroid Land camera, William Schockley 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. In 1970, he received an honorary doctorate in science degree from Hardin-Simmons. Sandia recently commissioned a statue of Whitfield, which will be the prominent feature of their new Microsystems and Engineering Science Applications Laboratory courtyard.

After thirty years with Sandia, Willis retired in 1984. Willis and Belva are active in the Hoffmantown Baptist Church of Albuquerque where he has served in many capacities, including department superintendent, teacher, chairman of teacher training, deacon and deacon chairman, chairman of personnel, church photographer. He also has worked with the Royal Ambassadors and the church Boy Scouts.

Willis and Belva have two sons, Joe and James, who are both engineers. Joe and his wife, Joy, live in Portland, Oregon, and James lives in Gilbert, Arizona.

Willis is content these days to read Lab News and work with the church. He is somewhat bemused by all the attention his invention has received, humbly stating, “I just thought about dust particles. Where are the rascals generated: Where do they go?”

It is the high honor of Hardin-Simmons University to recognize one of her own and to formally induct Dr. Willis James Whitfield into the HSU Hall of Leaders.