In Memoriam: Brian J. Thompson

Former professor and director of University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics, Brian Thompson spent a lifetime ‘making things happen’
31 January 2024
Karen Thomas
Brian Thompson and his wife Joyce attending an SPIE banquet.
Brian Thompson and his wife Joyce attending an SPIE banquet.

SPIE Fellow and Past President Brian J. Thompson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Rochester (UR), passed away 27 January at the age of 91. A leading researcher in coherent optics, holography, phase microscopy, and image processing, he carried out seminal experimental studies on partially coherent light and its effects, which became standard works in literature of this field. Thompson is also credited with developing dynamic particle size analysis — the first direct application of holography.

Thompson also excelled as an instructor and mentor to students and others in the optics community. In a 2009 interview with RU’s In Review, he noted “If you can create an environment in which people can prosper, that’s just as satisfying, and creative, as a new discovery. I find it very stimulating to make things happen — which is not too different than research, if you think about it.”

A long-time SPIE Member, Thompson served as President of the Society in 1975 and 1976. He chaired numerous SPIE conferences, served on the Publications and ESTeP committees, was an instructor, speaker, and author, and served as editor of the SPIE journal Optical Engineering from 1990 through 1997.

In 2011, Thompson received the SPIE Chandra S. Vikram Award in Optical Metrology in recognition of his efforts to engender the development of dynamic particle size analysis as well as for distinguished and all-around contributions to optics in general and SPIE in particular. “Professor Thompson was a leading researcher in the fields of coherent optics, holography, phase microscopy, and image processing,” noted Pennsylvania State University professor Akhlesh Lakhtakia at the time. “He set the standard for experimental research on partially coherent light and its effects, and his work is widely cited in optical texts and monographs. Dynamic particle size analysis, now widely used, was the first direct application of holography; it emerged directly from Thompson’s work.”

Other honors Thompson received from SPIE include the SPIE President's Award (1967), the SPIE Rudolf and Hilda Kingslake Award in Optical Design (1977), the SPIE Gold Medal (1986), and the SPIE Director's Award (1998).

A native of Preston, England, Thompson earned BSc and PhD degrees from the University of Manchester, where he worked for a time with optical physics pioneer Emil Wolf. Thompson joined UR in 1968 as Director of the Institute of Optics and served as Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science from 1975 to 1984. He continued as Provost at UR from 1984 to 1994.

In the same interview with In Review, Thompson said the job of Provost means “making the academic programs as strong as you can. Those were exciting years. The job gave me an opportunity to make things happen for other people, and I got a big kick out of that.”

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