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Robert Eustis, expert in thermodynamics, dies at 98

Robert Eustis, expert in thermodynamics, dies at 98

​A leader in energy research, Eustis taught at Stanford for 35 years.
June 12, 2018

Robert Eustis and his late wife, Kay, are shown in Eustis’ workshop. | Image credit: Steve Gladfelter


Robert H. “Bob” Eustis, the Clarence and Patricia Woodard Professor of Mechanical Engineering (Emeritus) at Stanford University and an expert in thermodynamics, died May 24, 2018, at his home on the Stanford campus. He was 98.

Eustis was a leader in energy research, a dedicated teacher and mentor and an accomplished administrator, serving on the Faculty Senate and acting as senior associate dean in the School of Engineering. His research interests included making power plants more efficient and finding methods for reducing emissions.

“Bob was a consistently outstanding faculty member in our highly regarded Mechanical Engineering Department and a very thoughtful citizen of the university. He was a great friend, to me and to many. And he was a great partner in our mutual efforts as deans to lead the School of Engineering along some new paths. It was an honor and a pleasure for me to work with him,” said former dean and colleague James Gibbons.

“When you teach at Stanford, you really love the place,” Eustis told The Palo Alto Weekly in 2005.

Scientist and mentor

Robert Henry Eustis was born April 18, 1920, in Minneapolis, the son of Ralph and Florence Eustis. He attended Minneapolis public schools and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. In 1943, he married Katherine “Kay” Johnson of Minneapolis. They had two children, Jeffrey in 1949 and Karen in 1958.

After graduation, Eustis enlisted in the Air Force in 1944 and was assigned to the Aircraft Engine Research Lab of NACA, which later became NASA, where he headed the fundamental turbine research section. Upon discharge in 1947, he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an instructor and a doctoral student in mechanical engineering. He earned his doctorate in 1953 while working as chief engineer for a Philadelphia-based start-up.

In 1954, the Eustis family moved to California and Bob worked at Stanford Research Institute, later SRI International. That same year, Stanford University invited Eustis to teach a course in thermodynamics. In 1955, he joined the Stanford faculty full time as an assistant professor, initiating a 35-year career that ended only when Eustis reached the once-mandatory retirement age of 70.

In 1961, Eustis and fellow professors E. Charles Kruger and Morton Mitchner founded the High Temperature Gasdynamics Laboratory at Stanford, which still exists today. Eustis served as director of the lab for the next nineteen years.

Among other things, Eustis’ research focused on technologies for removing pollutants from power plant emissions and for using existing fuels more efficiently. He was also a pioneer in the field of magneto hydrodynamics — in which partially ionized gas from burning coal could pass through a magnetic coil to produce electricity. The work was part of an effort to get more energy out of existing fuels.

In addition to his research, Eustis was known for a deep commitment to teaching. His laboratory shepherded more than 300 students to their doctorates. He was a member of the Academic Senate and senior associate dean of the School of Engineering for seven years. As an academic administrator, Eustis led an effort to instill broader science content in mechanical engineering courses, which he believed would produce graduates better able to adapt as engineering evolved.

Diverse interests

While Eustis staked his research reputation on thermodynamics, he was an engineer of diverse interests and talents. After retirement he restored a vintage Bentley with a friend. He also patented what he called a “box barrel” or a “smart barrel,” a method to speed up the aging process of wine without negatively affecting quality.

Eustis also devoted himself to his interest in woodwork, inventing a new sort of steel-reinforced furniture joint that he guaranteed for life. That tangent took him into the realm of high-end furniture design. After 10 years in business, Eustis gave the company he had founded, Eustis Designs, to Stanford to endow the Robert and Katherine Eustis Graduate Fellowship Fund. The university, in turn, licensed the design to a furniture maker in Massachusetts known, coincidentally, as Eustis Chair, run by a distant cousin who became a friend. In 2018, Eustis Chair reported that it had sold 30,000 chairs based on Bob Eustis’ design.

Eustis’ research earned him election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as the Emerson Electric Technology Award and a medal of achievement from the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union for work in magneto hydrodynamics. His dedication to teaching earned him a Tau Beta Pi award for distinguished undergraduate teaching and he received the Centennial Certificate of the American Society for Engineering Education.

Eustis’ wife, Kay, died in 2003. Eustis is survived by partner Phyllis Willits of Palo Alto; sister Carol Williams of Ottumwa, Iowa; son Jeffrey (’70) of Palo Alto; daughter Karen Eustis (’80) and son-in-law William Mason, both of Los Altos; grandson Adron Mason of Minneapolis; grandson David Mason of Washington, D.C.; and two great-grandchildren, Penelope and Mabel Mason, of Washington, D.C.

Memorial gifts in the name of Robert H. Eustis may be made to the victims of a natural disaster relief fund or a charity of choice.

A Celebration of Life is scheduled for July 21, 2018, at 2 p.m. at the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto, 1985 Louis Road, Palo Alto, 94303.