Obit: James Bell, Man of Research Surgery, Music, Dead at 80 By Ken Keatley James F. Bell, who during a 50-year career as a researcher and professor at Johns Hopkins University earned widespread acclaim in solid mechanics, cardiac surgery and music, died Sunday, Jan. 15, of cancer, at his home in Baltimore. He was 80. On Jan. 11, in commemoration of his long service and distinguished contributions to the university and the field of solid mechanics, Bell was presented with the President's Medal of The Johns Hopkins University. At the time of his death, five research papers were in press and scheduled for publication in 1995. Despite his failing health, Bell managed to complete another paper, on his research in the physics of crystalline solids, just last Tuesday. "He wanted to stay alive until he finished it," said Jane Kiester, his daughter. "He even said that he was the only scientist he knew who would kick the bucket with five papers in press." During his years at Hopkins, as professor and since 1979 professor emeritus, Bell worked continuously as an experimentist in the fields of non-linear mechanics and the dynamic plasticity in metals. He gained renown within the research community for his invention in the 1950s of a diffraction grating strain gauge, which he continued to refine over the years to conduct experiments and develop general theories of dynamic plasticity. He held patents for both his diffraction grating method for determining strain and the strain gauge itself, and authored or co-authored more than 80 papers based on his research. During the 1950s and 1960s, Bell simultaneously carried on an extensive research program with the Johns Hopkins Medical School in the area of cardiac surgery. He was the first director of a doctoral program in the department now called Biomedical Engineering, and worked on the development of a mechanical pump, for use during cardiac surgery, and a dialysis apparatus. He held a patent on the latter device. "He was well-known and respected for his intense enthusiasm for his research," said William Sharpe, chairman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and one of several students to earn doctorates under Bell's tutelage. That enthusiasm wasn't limited to research, according to Robert Pond Sr., professor emeritus of materials science and engineering at Hopkins, an associate and friend of Bell's for five decades. "He was one of the most dynamic lecturers we had," Pond said. "No one was more demonstrative, or more willing to lace his lectures with history." He recalled one occasion when Bell's spirited lecturing style got him into trouble. While teaching a course in dynamics, Bell attempted to demonstrate some properties of momentum by balancing a six-foot bamboo pointer on his finger while racing across a Maryland Hall classroom. "All the while he kept lecturing, and was looking at his students," Pond continued. "So he crashed right into the wall." "He was unusual in that he was a capable mathematician and theorist, as well as a capable researcher," said Charles Westgate, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Engineering. "He had a healthy skepticism and sense of humor. He was always a delightful guy to talk to." Bell's avocation was music. During the Depression in 1932, he began supporting himself by playing the saxophone and clarinet in dance bands that toured the country. During his years in Baltimore, he continued his interest in music, studying oboe at the Peabody Institute and playing it in the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra for more than 20 years. He was a member of the governing board of the Chamber Music Society of Maryland since 1953, and also enjoyed playing the piano and organ in his home. He also conducted research on acoustics, and co-authored with Clifford Truesdell, professor emeritus of rational mechanics at Hopkins, a chapter on the history of the physics of music for The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980). Since 1985, he had combined his love of engineering and music by teaching a course in acoustics at Hopkins' Peabody Institute. Born in Melrose, Mass., and raised in Bangor, Maine, Bell attended the University of Colorado before earning an undergraduate degree in mathematics from New York University in 1940. Until joining the Hopkins faculty in 1945, he worked as a mathematics consultant in private industry in New York. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Mechanics, a founding member of the Society for Natural Philosophy, a fellow of the Society for Experimental Stress Analysis (now the Society for Experimental Mechanics), co-editor of the International Journal of Plasticity, and a visiting professor or invited lecturer at over 75 universities in the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia. In 1974, he received the B.J. Lazan Award for distinguished contributions to experimental mechanics from the Society of Experimental Stress Analysis, and was the recipient of its William M. Murray medal in 1989. The International Symposium on Plasticity at the University of Oklahoma in 1984 was dedicated in his honor (commemorating his 70th birthday), as was the meeting of the Society of Natural Philosophy in Pisa, Italy, in 1978 (commemorating his 65th birthday). He is survived by his wife of 54 years, the former Perra Somers; a daughter; three grandchildren; and a sister. A memorial service will be held at Johns Hopkins University in the spring. The family asks that memorial contributions in Bell's honor be made to the Oncology Department at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.
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