James F. Bell, Hopkins professor of engineering

January 22, 1995|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

James F. Bell, an internationally recognized expert in the diverse fields of solid mechanics, surgical pumps and the physics of music, died of cancer at his Baltimore residence Jan. 15. He was 80.

In recognition of his accomplishments and tenure at the Johns Hopkins University, where he had been a faculty member of the School of Engineering since 1945, he was awarded the university President's Medal four days before his death.

He conducted research in nonlinear mechanics and dynamic plasticity in metals. At his death, five of his research papers were in production for publication this year. Despite failing health, he completed a paper on the physics of crystalline solids on Jan. 9.

"He wanted to stay alive until he finished it," said his daughter, Jane Kiester of Gainesville, Fla. "He even said that he was the only scientist he knew who would kick the bucket with five papers in press."

For years, he was a full, tenured professor performing esoteric research and teaching doctoral-level subjects despite holding only a bachelor's degree and being surrounded by colleagues with more advanced degrees.

Mr. Bell explained his arrangement with Hopkins this way: "They let me do what I wanted to do."

Robert Pond Sr., professor-emeritus of materials science and engineering at Hopkins and a

friend for 50 years, said Mr. Bell "will be remembered for two primary fields, his work in the plastic deformation of metals, which is the study of how metals react under different stresses and strains, and for his teaching."

He held patents and had written or co-written more than 80 papers related to ways that metals break and act under stress.

"He taught mechanics in a most unusual way," Dr. Pond said of his colleague. "While teaching a class one day, he was explaining the principle of momentum by balancing a 6-foot pointer on his finger. He proceeded to race across the room.

"As long as he was in motion, he could keep the pointer perfectly in position. If he stopped, the pointer would fall. He turned to look at the class to see their reaction and crashed into the wall. He was such a performer," Dr. Pond said.

Mr. Bell's landmark 1973 work, "The Experimental Foundations of Solid Mechanics," which examined the historical theories and experiments of solid mechanics from the time of the ancients to the present, was dedicated to his son, Christopher, who was killed in 1969 while serving with the Army in Vietnam.

The senior Mr. Bell also was interested in cardiac surgery and conducted a research program at Johns Hopkins Hospital. As first director of a doctoral program now called "biomedical engineering," he developed a mechanical pump that is used during cardiac surgery.

"He was unusual in that he was a capable mathematician and theorist, as well as a capable researcher," said Charles Westgate, associate dean of academic affairs in the School of Engineering. "He had a healthy skepticism and sense of humor, and he was always a delightful guy to talk to."

His far-ranging interests included hieroglyphics, the stars, cooking and music. His musical interest was rooted in the fact that after his family lost its money in the Depression -- including RTC money for his college education -- he played saxophone and clarinet in several touring big bands.

After moving to Baltimore, he studied the oboe at the Peabody

Conservatory and played in the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra for more than 20 years. He also was a member of the Chamber Music Society of Maryland since 1953.

A talented musician who played other woodwind instruments and the piano, his interest led him to conduct research on acoustics and why instruments sound the way they do.

His research led him to a 1980 collaboration with Clifford Truesdale, professor emeritus of rational mechanics at Hopkins, which culminated in a chapter on the history of the physics of music for The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Born in Melrose, Mass., and reared in Bangor, Maine, in 1940 he earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics from New York University.

Mr. Bell was a fellow of the American Academy of Mechanics, a founding member of the Society for Natural Philosophy, the Society for Experimental Stress Analysis, and was an editor of the International Journal of Plasticity.

Plans for a spring memorial service at Johns Hopkins are incomplete.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 54 years, the former Perra Somers, a retired Towson State University professor; a sister, Hester Coe of Winter Park, Fla; and three grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to Union Memorial Hospital, Oncology Department, 201 E. University Parkway, Baltimore 21218.

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