Pioneering materials scientist dies at 92

Julia Weertman at a campus reception in her honor in 2013.

Julia R. Weertman of Evanston, the first woman to chair a materials science department at a U.S. university, died at age 92 on July 31.

Weertman, a professor emerita of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, was considered by colleagues to be a dedicated teacher and a pioneering researcher.

Weertman made many noteworthy contributions to understanding the basic deformation processes and failure mechanisms in a wide class of materials, from nanocrystalline metals to high-temperature structural alloys.

Her 1964 textbook, “Elementary Dislocation Theory” (Reprint, Oxford University Press, 1992), which she co-authored with her husband, Northwestern emeritus professor Johannes Weertman, stands as the first book written specifically for undergraduate students on dislocation theory, an important factor in determining the behavior of crystalline materials.

She was the first woman admitted to the College of Science and Engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, where she earned her bachelor’s, master’s and DSc degrees in physics. She joined Northwestern’s department of materials science and engineering in 1972 as an assistant professor, teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  

“Julia was an illustrious faculty member in our department and has always been deeply committed to it,” said Erik Luijten, professor and chair of the department of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “She is remembered by many of her former colleagues for her warmth, inspiration and seminal contributions to the field.”

In 1987, Weertman was appointed chair of Northwestern’s department of materials science and engineering, becoming the first woman in the country to hold the position within an engineering department. During her five-year tenure, the number of materials science undergraduate students more than doubled, and she recruited two new female faculty members to join the department.

“Julia was a mentor’s mentor,” said Katherine Faber, Simon Ramo Professor of Materials Science at the California Institute of Technology and former chair of the department of materials science and engineering at Northwestern. “Her advocacy for her faculty colleagues and students was unparalleled, all the while, showing by example, the importance of serious scholarship.”

Weertman’s career was marked by many honors. In 2014, she received the prestigious John Fritz Medal from the American Association of Engineering Societies in recognition of her role in the understanding of failure in materials and for inspiring generations of young women to pursue careers in the science and engineering fields.

That same year, the department of materials science and engineering established the Johannes and Julia Randall Weertman Graduate Fellowship in honor of the couple’s impactful contributions to materials science and to Northwestern.

In 2017, The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS) renamed its TMS Educator Award to the TMS Julia and Johannes Weertman Educator Award. This award celebrates an individual who has made outstanding contributions to education in metallurgical engineering and/or materials science and engineering.

Julia Weertman’s other honors include membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). She was also a recipient of the Von Hippel Award from the Materials Research Society in 2003, the ASM International Gold Medal in 2005, two Special Creativity Awards for Research from the National Science Foundation, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Distinguished Engineering Educator Award from the Society of Women Engineers.

“I can’t imagine wanting any career other than engineering,” Weertman wrote on NAE’s EngineerGirl website in 2012. “My advice to young women who are considering engineering as a major involves the usual clichés, but they are nonetheless valid: Work hard and try to be the very best, keep your sense of humor active, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Stick with top-notch people. And most of all, enjoy what you do.”

Weertman is survived by her husband, Johannes; daughter Julia (Nicholas Zerebny); son Bruce (Leslie Miller); grandson Willem; and sister Louise Walsh. She was preceded in death by her grandson, Johannes Weertman.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 21, at Alice Millar Chapel on Northwestern’s campus. A reception at The Woman’s Club of Evanston, 1702 Chicago Ave., Evanston, will follow.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Johannes and Julia Randall Weertman Graduate Fellowship.

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