Dorothy Martin Simon, WPI’s first female trustee, died March 25 in Pittsboro, N.C. She was 96. She was predeceased by her husband, Sidney L. Simon, and a brother, Robert W. Martin. An early evaluator of the WPI Plan, Simon saw merit in WPI’s innovative approach to education and furthered the university’s mission through gifts to its pioneering academic program in fire protection engineering.
Simon’s involvement with WPI goes back almost a half century. In 1971 she received an honorary doctor of science degree from WPI in recognition of her discoveries in the fields of chemistry and combustion research. The following year she was appointed to a committee that was evaluating the progress of the WPI Plan. “It was very exciting to see this pioneering educational innovation begin to make a difference,” she said of that experience. “By the end of 1972, I was devoted to WPI.” In 1973 Simon was appointed the university’s first female trustee, a post she held for 12 years.
Born in Harwood, Mo., in 1919, Simon distinguished herself as scholar from the start. She earned an AB from Southwest Missouri State University, where she was the first student to graduate with a perfect 4.0 grade point average. She went on to earn a PhD at the University of Illinois and completed postdoctoral research in physical chemistry at Cambridge University under a Rockefeller Public Service Award from the federal government.
Simon’s career as a research chemist began at DuPont, where she developed new catalysts that gave filaments distinctive properties. Her work led to the synthesis of the revolutionary fabrics Orlon and Dacron. Later, as a chemist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, she isolated a new isotope of calcium. She went on to research posts at the Argonne National Laboratory and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the precursor of NASA). In 1956 she joined AVCO Corp., where she rose to vice president for research and development, becoming the company’s first female corporate officer.
While working at NACA’s Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, Simon conducted and directed research on methods for the measurement of flames. Her inquiries into the fundamental properties of flames and the mechanism of flame propagation led to advances in the field of combustion theory. An early advocate of performance-based fire safety, she was called on to testify on the importance of balancing safely, cost, and functionality.