Professor John Clark dies at age 80

John Clark Jr., professor of electrical and computer engineering and of bioengineering and a former master of Sid Richardson College, died Aug. 6. He was 80.

John Clark

John Clark

A member of the Rice faculty since 1968 and a full professor since 1979, Clark would have completed 50 years of service next July.

“John was a true scholar with an astounding 49 years of dedicated service to Rice,” said Edward Knightly, department chair and the Sheafor-Lindsay Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “His teaching and research seamlessly bridged from electrical engineering to biological systems.”

A Life Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) for his contributions to modeling in electrophysiology and cardiopulmonary systems, Clark specialized in research on neural and cardiac electrophysiology, mathematical modeling of biological systems, nonlinear system dynamics and electromagnetic field theory.

Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering who was Clark’s department chair for 10 years and his colleague for 30 years, noted Clark’s interest in signal processing. “He was one of the first few people in the country that recognized how engineering tools and models could be used in medicine and in health care,” Aazhang said. “He was indeed a pioneer in engineering aspects of electrophysiology.”

Sidney Burrus, a former dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering, said Clark “contributed to the larger biomedical effort before bioengineering came into existence” by applying the systems tools of electrical and computer engineering to medical problems and the signal processing tools to medical signals.

Clark’s pioneering achievements were also remembered by alumnus Rob Butera, a former student of Clark’s who received an M.S. in 1994 and a Ph.D. in 1991, both in electrical engineering. “John’s early research career focused on developing techniques for forward and inverse problems in electrophysiology — ones that are still active research areas today,” Butera said. “How can one decode a nerve signal, given electrical measurements from surface electrodes? These are important problems today in brain-machine interfaces and neural-controlled prosthetics, and he was working on these problems in the 1970s long before the term ‘neural engineering’ was coined.”

Butera said Clark was “extremely dedicated” to growing biomedical engineering locally and nationally. “‘Many would argue he was the heart and soul of the creation of the Houston Society for Engineering in Medicine and Biology, which held one of the longest-running regional biomedical engineering conferences in the United States,” he said.

“John mentored thousands of undergraduates and inspired many future careers in biomedical engineering long before Rice had a Bioengineering Department, and his many Ph.D. graduates now work in leading medical device companies as well as internationally known research universities,” said Butera, who is a professor of electrical and computer engineering, professor of biomedical engineering and associate dean for research in the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Clark served as president of the international IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) and was a founding fellow of the Biomedical Engineering Society. In 1993 he was inducted as a founding fellow in the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering in a ceremony held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. In 2009 he received the IEEE/Engineering in Medicine and Biology Service Award “for outstanding service and contributions to the EMB Society and a meritorious career in biomedical engineering education.”

A native of Rochester, N.Y., Clark earned his B.S. in electric engineering from Christian Brothers College, his M.S. in electrical engineering from Case Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. in engineering from Case Western Reserve University.

In addition to serving as a master of Sid Richardson College from 1981 to 1986, Clark was a faculty associate at Lovett College. He played saxophone in a faculty jazz band in his early years at Rice.

During his career at Rice, Clark spent a sabbatical year as an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Fellow at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany. To help foster the next generation of outstanding young researchers, Clark’s family requests that instead of traditional remembrances, contributions be made in Clark’s name to the American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, 1101 17th St. NW, Suite 603, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Clark is survived by his wife, Betty Stovall “Kit” Clark; four children – John W. Clark III of Houston, Nan Ellen Clark Stout of Sugar Land, Texas, Adrienne Anne Clark Iles of Rockport, Texas, and Michael Christian Clark of Houston; and eight grandchildren.

A funeral Mass was held Aug. 10 in the Chapel of St. Basil on the University of St. Thomas campus.


About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.