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Sheila E. Widnall was named a Massachussetts Institute of Technology "institute
professor." The Abby R. Mauze
professor of aeronautics, Dr. Widnall was awarded the institute's highest honor by the faculty and administration; at any
one time only about 12 faculty members are privileged to hold the title. Selected professors report directly to the provost.
In 1964, Dr. Widnall was the first woman to be appointed to the engineering faculty, and in 1979 she was the first woman
to chair the faculty. She was honored with a named chair in 1986. From 1993-1997 Dr. Widnall served as Secretary of
the Air Force, where her leadership and strategic planning have had an enduring influence and were models for the other
services. The first woman president of the AAAS, she serves as vice president of the National Academy of Engineering.
She is an expert in fluid mechanics, particularly in the understanding of vortices and free-shear layers.
In March, 1998, Dr. Widnall was presented the 1998 Dr. Robert H. Goddard memorial trophy by the National Space
Club. The award honored her service as Secretary of the Air Force from 1993-1997 and recognized her "extraordinary
vision and strength of purpose in leading the US Air Force efforts to modernize the space and launch systems of the
Department of Defense and enhance the integration of space operations into the military services of the United States."
Recently, Dr. Widnall received the 2001 Spirit of St. Louis Medal from the American
Society of Mechanical Engineering. The former secretary of the Air Force was cited
for "her exemplary leadership in the aerospace sciences and for significant
contributions to fluid mechanics, particularly the understanding of vortex structures,
their contribution to noise in rotary wing vehicles, and how vortex decay can be
This short biography was adapted from the Summer 1998, Spring 1999 and Fall 2001 issues of the magazine, The Bent of Tau Beta Pi as well as the ASME organization.
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Updated: 12 March, 2004