Jean M. Bennett, the Society's first woman president and a Fellow Emeritus was a highly decorated research physicist who was widely known for her contributions to the study of optical surfaces.
She received her B.A. in physics from Mount Holyoke College, U.S. in 1951 and did her graduate work at Pennsylvania State University, U.S., where she became the first woman at the school to earn a Ph.D. in physics in 1955. The following year, she was employed as a research physicist at Michelson Laboratory, U.S. In 1956, she joined the Naval Weapons Center (now the Naval Air Warfare Center) at China Lake, where she remained throughout her career, except for brief visiting appointments at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and Stockholm’s Institute of Optical Research.
Bennett was an OSA member for 37 years. She served on OSA’s Board of Directors from 1978 to 1980 and as president in 1986. She was an editor for Applied Optics and Optics Express and served on the award committees for the Esther Hoffman Geller Award, the David Richardson Medal and the C.E.K. Mees Medal. Bennett was named an OSA Fellow in 1972. She was awarded the David Richardson Medal in 1990 for her distinguished contributions to applied optics.
Bennett received numerous other awards and honors, including the SPIE Technology Achievement Award (1983) and the Naval Weapons Center L.T.E. Thompson Award for scientific achievements in optics technology (1988). She was recognized as a Senior Fellow of the Naval Weapons Center in 1989 and, in 1994, she was named a Distinguished Fellow, an honor limited to .025 percent of the Naval Weapons Center’s technical population, for her work in interferometry, micro-roughness analysis, and optical physics, and for her extensive original contributions in optical surface scattering and surface roughness. In 1988, the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (formerly the Rose Polytechnic Institute) in Terre Haute, Ind., created the Jean Bennett Award, given annually to a senior who has demonstrated excellence in optics.
Bennett was recognized for her achievements during a time when women in optics were few and far between. She received the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division Lifetime Achievement Award of Women Scientists & Engineers in 1993 and was awarded a National Science Foundation grant for visiting professorships for women. In an interview in the January 1986 Optics News, she downplayed the significance of gender in her chosen work. “I would like to think that optics is for everyone who has the necessary abilities, is challenged by the problems and excited by new discoveries,” she said. “The future for everyone—men, women, minority groups, whoever—is very bright, if they are willing to work. No one group should be given special benefits, but everyone should be given equal opportunities without discrimination.”
Bennett was the author of several books, including Introduction to Surface Roughness and Scattering. She was also the author or co-author of more than 100 articles in scientific journals, and she held several patents.
After her death in 2008, the Society established the Jean Bennett Memorial Student Travel Grant for her contributions to the studies of optical surfaces.