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In Memoriam: Dorothy Martin Simon, Trustee Emerita

WPI’s first female trustee was a pioneer in science and industry

June 16, 2016
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Simon in her home in North Carolina in a
2001 photo

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 boards a corporate plane while she
was the first female corporate officer at AVCO

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.

Dorothy Simon was ahead of her time. The prudent application of performance-based technology [for fire safety measures in buildings] was slow to find its way into the mainstream of codified practice in America.
David A. Lucht
Director Emeritus of WPI’s Center for Firesafety Studies
Simon, as a member of the board of the American
Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, presents
the Guggenheim Medal to David Lewis of General
Dynamics in 1982

In 2000 Simon made a commitment to the education of future fire protection engineers by establishing the Dorothy M. Simon Endowed Fund for Fire Safety Studies at WPI. She became a member of the President’s Advisory Council and made subsequent gifts to bolster that academic discipline.

“I established this fund for three reasons,” she said in a profile in WPI’s philanthropy publication Quest. “I know the quality of education at WPI; I want to see the Center for Firesafety Studies continue to thrive, and I am pleased to think that for years to come, graduates may enjoy their careers as much as I did mine.”

We are deeply grateful for Dorothy Simon’s leadership gift. It is especially meaningful, given her own high stature as a woman in science and industry. Her name will serve as a beacon for the potential accomplishments of women in engineering.
David Lucht

Simon retired from a 30-year career with AVCO in 1984 to found her own consulting firm, Simon Associates, which she operated from her home in Chapel Hill until 1993. Throughout her career she received recognition for her own accomplishments and for her advocacy of the education and professional advancement of women. She served on numerous advisory committees for government agencies and universities, and on the boards of major corporations. Among her many honors are the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award and inclusion on Businessweek’s list of 100 Top Corporate Women for 1976.