My predecessor Peter Wray cherished a short, typewritten, hand-signed letter from a Bulletin reader and hung it in a prominent spot in his office. The letter was from S. Donald Stookey. Stookey had written to comment on an article Peter had published in the ACerS Bulletin. What an honor to be noticed, let alone commended, by arguably the greatest glass scientist of the 20th century!

Sadly, Stookey died on Tuesday, Nov. 4, at the age of 99 in Pittsford, N.Y. Stookey joined the Society in 1944 and was a Distinguished Life Member and Fellow. He belonged to the Glass and Optical Materials Division.

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S. Donald Stookey. Credit: Corning Inc.

“Donald Stookey was certainly one of the greatest inventors in the history of glass science and technology. He influenced entire generations of glass scientists, including mine,” says Edgar D. Zanotto, himself a world-renowned glass scientist on the faculty of Federal University of São Carlos in Brazil.

Zanotto also received a personal letter from Stookey in 2010 about an article published in the Bulletin, which Zanotto says is “one of the most valuable letters I’ve ever received.” Coincidentally, that same year Stookey was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. At the time Stookey told an interviewer, “It’s a wonderful honor and I’m very happy, at my age of 94, to still be remembered for contributing something positive to research and to people’s everyday lives.”

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Zanotto’s letter from Stookey. Credit: E. Zanotto

Stookey is most renowned for discovering glass-ceramics and photosensitive glass, although he influenced much more during his 47-year career at Corning.

As most in our field know, Stookey discovered and learned how to control the nucleation and crystal growth process that converts glass to glass-ceramic. Corning named the glass-ceramic material “Pyroceram” and used it to make consumer products, missile nose cones, and fasteners for the space shuttle. One of the company’s most successful consumer products, CorningWare, extended Stookey’s work into millions of households around the world.

As often happens, a lab accident catalyzed the “discovery” of new phenomena that led to a host of lucrative glass-ceramics products. In the early 1950s, Stookey was working on glasses for a television tube market still in its infancy. Corning’s website describes the discovery:

…when [Stookey] put a Fotoform plate into a furnace set at 600 degrees Celsius. The furnace malfunctioned and the temperature rose to 900 degrees Celsius. Expecting to find a molten mess inside the furnace, Dr. Stookey instead discovered an opaque, milky-white plate. He removed it from the furnace, but his tongs slipped and the plate bounced unbroken on the floor, clanging like a piece of steel. “It crystallized so completely that it could not flow,” he later wrote, “ and was obviously much stronger than ordinary glass.”

While the formation of this first piece of glass-ceramics was “a lucky accident,” Stookey said, he followed up with years of rigorous research. Ultimately, he confirmed his belief that nucleation—the critical first step in the crystallization process—could initiate a host of new crystalline materials from glass. Corning patented the material as Pyroceram® glass ceramic.

“It opened up an ongoing opportunity for research by hundreds of chemists all over the world,” he says.

According to a Washington Post report, citing his commendation on receiving the National Medal of Technology in 1986, his work led to $500 million in annual sales and more than 10,000 jobs.

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CorningWare flower-print casserole dishes. Credit: Wikimedia CC

Stookey earned undergraduate degrees from Coe College (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) in chemistry and mathematics, followed by a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Coe College, a private undergraduate college, continues to introduce young minds to the wonders of glass through the work of Steve Feller and Mario Affatigato. Many of their students find their way to Corning for summer internships, building on Stookey’s legacy.

In 2006, the Society’s Glass and Optical Materials Division established the “Stookey Lecture of Discovery” to recognize “an individual’s lifetime of innovative exploratory work or noteworthy contributions of outstanding research on new materials, phenomena, or processes involving glass that have commercial significance or the potential for commercial impact.” The award is sponsored jointly by Corning and Coe College.

Most of us aspire to leave the world a better place than it was when we arrived. Stookey, by all accounts, achieved that.