In Memoriam: James C. Wyant

09 December 2023
James C. Wyant was professor emeritus and founding dean of the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona
James C. Wyant was professor emeritus and founding dean of the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona. Credit: Jacob Chinn / University of Arizona

James C. Wyant, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona (UA), passed away at age 80 on 8 December after a long battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). A professor, dean, business leader, and philanthropist, Wyant was known as a giant in the field of optical sciences.

In a 2014 interview for UA’s Etendue, he was asked, “What is one thing that few people know about Jim Wyant?” He responded that he was once a chicken farmer in Ohio. “My father died when I was five years old, so I took over the family farm when I was 13. I was raising 28,000 chickens a year before I could even drive a car. By the age of 15, I added a new line. I bought and baled hay from local farmers. With the help of my high school friends during the summer, we would average 1,000 bales a day. A bale would cost me 25 cents and I sold them for 75 cents. When I added that with my chicken money, I was making far more money than my high school teachers.” This drive and entrepreneurship would take him far in his career in optics and photonics.

Even as a young chicken farmer, Wyant dreamed of one day being a teacher and inventor. In 1965, he received a BS in physics from Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University). At the University of Rochester's Institute of Optics, he earned MS and PhD degrees in optical sciences in 1967 and 1969 respectively.

Wyant began his career in industry working for Itek Corp. In 1975, he realized his dream to work in education when he became an assistant professor at the Optical Sciences Center at UA. By 1979, he was a full professor. Still an inventor/entrepreneur at heart, Wyant co-founded WYKO and 4D Technology corporations, all while maintaining his teaching position.

In 2013, Wyant’s $10 million gift to UA's College of Optical Sciences (OSC) helped to establish 30 first-year graduate student scholarships. In 2018, he and his family pledged $20 million for ten endowed faculty chair positions. In 2019, as part of the SPIE Endowment Matching Program, Wyant and his family matched funds to create a $2-million-endowed faculty chair.

In honor of his role as founding dean of the OSC, his dedication to teaching, his pioneering innovations, and his generous philanthropy, the college was renamed the “James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences” in 2019.

In the interview with Etendue, Wyant was also asked what his motivation was for bestowing such a large scholarship gift to UA. Wyant noted two primary reasons: “One, I wanted to do something for the University since it has been supporting me now for 40 years. I am especially grateful that the University showed incredible flexibility when I was partway through my teaching career and wanted to start up a company (WYKO Corp). The second and leading reason was that I really would like to see our students succeed as they pursue their own interests in optics.”  

A long-time SPIE Member, Wyant became a Fellow in 1980 and served as president in 1986. He also served on the Board of Directors and several conference committees and authored many proceeding papers. Among his many honors and awards, Wyant received the SPIE Gold Medal (2003), the SPIE Chandra Vikram Award (2010), and the SPIE Visionary Award (2019). In 2021, a tribute to Wyant was held at SPIE Optics + Photonics in San Diego: The open access “Tribute to James C. Wyant: The Extraordinaire in Optical Metrology and Optics Education” was later published in the SPIE Digital Library.

the James Wyant tribute conference at Optics + Photonics 2021

A group picture from the James Wyant tribute conference at Optics + Photonics 2021. Credit: SPIE

“Jim was a wonderful person, teacher, businessman, and philanthropist,” said SPIE CEO and Wyant College of Optical Sciences alumnus Kent Rochford. “His service to SPIE as President, Board Member, Conference organizer, and Course Instructor was impressive and yet dwarfed by his service to the wider optics community. He made a huge impact on many of us personally and many more through his leadership, technical innovations, and enormous generosity.  It’s hard to imagine our field today without all of Jim’s accomplishments, and he will be dearly missed.”

Read the full tribute from the University of Arizona.

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