John Silcox, left, is pictured in the lab with graduate students Yujiun Tzou, M.S. ’90, Ph.D. ’94, center, and David Muller, Ph.D. ’96, who went on to become a professor and colleague of Silcox’s in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics at Cornell. Silcox died April 25, at 88.

John Silcox, emeritus engineering professor, dies at 88

John Silcox, the David E. Burr Professor of Engineering Emeritus who twice served as director of the School of Ap­plied and Engineering Physics (AEP) in Cornell Engineering, died April 25 in Ithaca. Silcox was 88.

A member of the Cornell faculty for 48 years, Silcox served as director of the Cornell Materials Science Center (now the Cornell Center for Materials Research) from 1989 to 1997, and as vice provost for research for physical sciences and engineering from 1998 to 2003. He also served as interim director of the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility (2006-07), prior to his retirement in 2009.

John Silcox

“John is someone we all looked up to at AEP as a researcher, teacher, colleague and mentor,” said Chris Xu, M.S. ’93,  Ph.D. ’96, the IBM Professor of Engineering and Director of AEP. “He was universally loved – by faculty, staff and students. I am proud and consider myself lucky to have known John for over 20 years, and I will miss his cheerful presence, his forever positive outlook on everything he encountered, and his booming laugh that could be heard throughout Clark Hall as soon as he stepped in.”

“A whole bunch of us would have lunch together every day, and John was a role model and mentor for how to be a better faculty member,” said David Muller, Ph.D. ’96, the Samuel B. Eckert Professor of Engineering. In addition to being a colleague, Silcox was Muller’s doctoral adviser in the mid-1990s.  “These lunch experiences were where we learned to how to do the collaborative science that Cornell’s materials community is so well known for.”

Silcox was a fellow of the American Physical Society, and a member and past president of the Electron Microscopy Society of America, from whom he received the 1996 Distinguished Scientist Award in physical sciences, the highest honor bestowed by the world’s leading professional association of electron and optical microscopists. He was honored for “internationally recognized research accomplishments and distinguished contributions to microscopy.”

Silcox was born May 26, 1935, in Saltash, in southwest England. At age 10, he was sent to boarding school in nearby Totnes, where at age 13 he met his future wife, Heather Penhale. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics, with first class honors, from Bristol University in 1957, and his doctorate in physics from Cambridge University in 1961. John and Heather were married in 1960.

Silcox worked briefly as a postdoctoral researcher in the renowned Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, after which the Silcoxes emigrated to the U.S. (on the Empress of Canada’s final ocean voyage), where John joined the Cornell faculty as a 26-year-old assistant professor in AEP.

His research interests included electron microscopy, spectroscopy and diffraction of materials by field emission scanning transmission electron microscopy. His researched aimed to establish quantitative analysis of materials at the atomic scale.

Silcox served on the Solid State Sciences Committee of the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council (1978-82). He was a member and chair of the Materials Research Advisory Committee for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and served as co-chair of the NSF Panel on High Resolution Electron Microscopy.

Silcox also chaired the Advisory Committee for the Electronic Microscopy Center for Materials Science at Argonne National Laboratory.

Silcox spent sabbatical leaves in France and Great Britain in 1967-68 as a Guggenheim Fellow; at Bell Laboratories in 1974-75; and at Arizona State University in 1983.

In 1985 he earned the Tau Beta Pi Excellence in Engineering Teaching Award, and in 1988 he was named the David E. Burr Professor of Engineering. While serving as director of the Cornell Materials Science Center, he helped secure a multimillion-dollar NSF research grant to continue funding for the center.

Joel Brock, director of the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), who joined the Cornell AEP faculty in 1989, recalled Silcox as a great friend to young faculty.

“John would just pop into your office, and you always felt great because he’d walk in the door and say, ‘Hello, genius!’” Brock said. “It wasn’t until 15 years later that I found out he called everyone ‘genius.’”

Silcox was proud of his work as a scientist and educator, and was a devoted adviser and mentor to undergraduate and graduate students.

“You could tell when he was coming, because you’d hear his laugh down the corridor,” Muller said. “We had an electron microscope, which was in a shielded room, but the resonance frequency of his laugh would be picked up in the image of the microscope.”

Silcox was predeceased by Heather, his wife of 50 years, in 2010. He is survived by a sister, Ann L. Silcox; companion Cynthia Robinson; daughters Heather J. (Ron) Andelora, Allison T. Silcox and Laurie E. (Jon) Clarke; and three grandchildren.

Media Contact

Becka Bowyer