In Memoriam: Nobel Laureate Willard S. Boyle, 1924-2011

BoyleWillard S. Boyle, who received a 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention, with George E. Smith, of the charge-coupled device (CCD), died 7 May 2011 at a hospital in Wallace, Nova Scotia. He was 86.

The CCD, a revolutionary imaging device that transforms light rays into digital images, propelled traditional film photography into the digital frontier. The digital image sensor - a photosensitive microchip - is 1,000 times more sensitive than photographic film and practically made chemical film obsolete. The device, smaller than a dime, has become ubiquitous. It is the eye behind every picture on the Internet, every digital and video camera, every computer scanner, copier machine and high-definition television. CCDs can be found in endoscopes used for laparoscopic surgeries and colonoscopies, the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Mars Rover.

Dr. Boyle and Dr. Smith split half of the $1.4 million physics prize awarded by the Nobel committee. The other half went to Charles K. Kao for research that led to the development of fiber optic cables.

Willard Sterling Boyle was born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, in 1924. When he was 3, his family moved to northern Quebec, where his father, a doctor, set up a practice in a logging community and the family got around by dog sled. With the nearest school 30 miles away, his mother home-schooled Boyle until high school.

During World War II, Boyle served in the Royal Canadian Navy and trained to fly Spitfire fighter planes. He received a bachelor’s degree from Montreal’s McGill University in 1947 and a master’s degree a year later. He earned his doctorate in physics from McGill in 1950 and stayed on to work as a postdoctoral fellow in the school’s radiation laboratory.

Boyle taught briefly at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario.  In 1953, he joined the research staff of Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., where he spent his entire career.

Among his many other scientific achievements, Boyle developed the ruby laser in 1962 with a co-worker, Don Nelson. With another colleague, David Thomas, Boyle was given a patent that led to the development of the semiconductor injection laser, which is found in many electronic appliances. In 1962, Boyle was assigned to a Bell subsidiary that offered technical support to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). There he helped select lunar landing sites before returning to Bell Labs in 1964.

He retired in 1979 as executive director of research in Bell’s communication science division.

Boyle and Smith remained close friends after retirement. Beyond their Nobel, they shared a love of the sea and often sailed together on Long Island Sound.

Dr. Boyle was predeceased by a son. Survivors include his wife, Betty, whom he married in 1946, three children, 10 grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.

If you would like to make a donation to the OSA Foundation in memory of Dr. Boyle, please visit www.osa-foundation.org/give.