Eight New Individuals Inducted Into the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame

New inductees embody Rensselaer legacy of world-changing innovation

January 26, 2021


Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has inducted eight individuals into the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame. Conceived in 1995, the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame was created to honor the past while celebrating all generations of Rensselaer pioneers.

“These distinguished Rensselaer graduates truly embody the growing legacy of innovation and change that Rensselaer alumni and alumnae have brought to the world for almost two centuries,” said Chuck Rancourt ’70, chair of the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

The inductees are John Joseph Albright, Class of 1868; Marta Ruth Bohn-Meyer, Class of 1979; Charles I. Cassell, Class of 1951; Edgar M. Cortright Jr., Class of 1947; Peter E. Hart, Class of 1962; James A. Parsons, Class of 1922; Augustine Sackett, Class of 1862; and Kathryn Egloff Zoon, Class of 1970.

The profile of each inductee may be found below. For more details, visit this website.

John Joseph Albright

Class of 1868

Leading industrialist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist

(1848 – 1931)

After first working in Washington, D.C. as a coal agent, Albright moved to Buffalo in 1883 to perform similar work for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroads. He then turned to asphalt and land speculation. Together with his brother-in-law, Albright made Buffalo the second city in the nation to have paved streets.

Albright was largely responsible for assembling the land upon which the Lackawanna Steel Company mill was built in 1901. By 1928, the plant had a yearly production of 1.75 million tons and employed over 8,300. At the same time, Albright started investing in hydroelectric projects, initially in Montana, then in Mechanicville, New York, and finally at Niagara Falls. By 1913, he and his associates controlled the Niagara, Lockport, and Ontario power companies.

Albright became wealthy over the years but believed that the rich “held their money in trust,” and that they had an obligation to return it to their communities. He funded and then donated the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to Buffalo. Today that gallery contains one of the nation’s leading collections of art. His continual philanthropic efforts stretched from the library in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to Buffalo schools, to buildings on the Rensselaer campus.

Marta Ruth Bohn-Meyer

Class of 1979

Groundbreaking female test pilot and NASA administrator

(1957 – 2005)

After graduation, Bohn-Meyer began work at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. She conducted research on flight testing, including developing test techniques for laminar flow research on aircraft wings. Among these projects was the Space Shuttle’s thermal protection tiles. She flew in the F-104 to conduct those tests. Bohn-Meyer was a flight engineer in the SR-71 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft at Dryden. She was the first and only female crew member to fly in one of the triple-sonic SR-71s, serving as navigator during studies of aerodynamics and propulsion.

Bohn-Meyer was appointed chief engineer at Dryden in October 2001, after serving in a series of increasingly responsible positions. These included director of flight operations, director of safety and mission assurance, deputy director of aerospace projects, and project manager for the F-16XL program. She was a widely known precision aerobatic pilot. She died while practicing aerobatics in 2005.

Bohn-Meyer is portrayed in a painting at NASA’s Lewis Research Center, “Superstars of Modern Aeronautics,” unveiled in 1998, and is included in a NASA timeline of historical milestones, “Women’s Contributions to Aeronautics and Space,” listing her as the first female crew member in the SR-71. She accumulated over 750 flying hours in different NASA aircraft.

Charles I. Cassell

Class of 1951

Pioneering African American architect and civil rights activist/leader

(1924 – )

A member of one of the nation's leading African American families in architecture, Cassell served in the Army during World War II. He trained as a pilot with the renowned African American squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen.

After graduating, Cassell worked for his father and then launched his own career with the Navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks, helping to design various buildings. He later joined the Veterans Administration where he designed hospitals. His last federal position was with the General Services Administration in New England.

In 1960, Cassell received his architecture registration in Washington, D.C. He was appointed a professor at the Federal City College and was later named assistant to the vice president before the school was disbanded.

In the early 1960s, Cassell became involved with civil rights in D.C. He supported giving D.C. residents the right to vote in federal elections and helped convince the federal government to provide an elected Board of Education in D.C. He also served as vice chairman of the Emergency Committee on Transportation Crises, president of the D.C. Statehood Party, and chairman of the D.C. Statehood Constitutional Convention. From 1988 until his retirement, he served as vice president of administrative services for the new University of District of Columbia. He was elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 2008. Cassell also held important positions in historic preservation.

Edgar M. Cortright Jr.

Class of 1947

Senior NASA official; aeronautics scientist

(1923 – 2014)

Cortright began his NASA career in 1948 at the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland. He then worked at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C., from 1958 to 1968. He compiled an impressive portfolio of research on propulsion aerodynamics, including fundamental scientific contributions to understanding boundary-layer flow on supersonic inlet performance, and interaction of propulsive jets. This work was important to the design of supersonic aircraft and other vehicles.

Cortright's work at Lewis and NASA headquarters also included developing overall program plans and operating concepts for NASA. In 1960, he was named director for lunar and planetary programs in the Office of Space Flight Programs. In that role, Cortright directed work on unmanned lunar and planetary programs, including the Mariner, Ranger, and Surveyor missions to the Moon, Mars, and Venus. He was named deputy director of the Office of Space Sciences in 1961, and deputy associate administrator for space science and applications in 1963. Cortright joined the Office of Manned Space Flight as deputy associate administrator in 1967, where he served until his appointment as Langley Research Center director in 1968. During his seven-year leadership role at Langley, he managed a range of important NASA efforts. In recognition of his expertise, he was asked to lead the official investigation of the 1970 explosion that crippled the Apollo 13 Moon mission spacecraft and forced its return to Earth.

After retiring in 1975, Cortright held corporate leadership positions at Owens Illinois and Lockheed.

Peter E. Hart

Class of 1962

Renowned computer scientist; “Shakey the Robot” innovator

(1941 – )

Hart began his career with the Artificial Intelligence Center at SRI International, a nonprofit scientific research institute founded by Stanford University trustees. He later served as director. While working there he was a key part of the team that developed Shakey the Robot in 1972. The project was unique because it combined research in robotics, computer vision, and natural language processing to create the world's first general-purpose mobile robot able to reason about its own actions. The robot’s development involved several scientific milestones that have had far-reaching impact on robotics and artificial intelligence, as well as computer science. Shakey now sits in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

In 1973, Hart completed a book “Pattern Classification and Scene Analysis” (co-authored by R.O. Duda) that had a lasting impact on computer science and artificial intelligence. Later in his career while at Ricoh Group, he founded Ricoh Innovations, Inc., to create new technology and business opportunities. He served as president of the unit for a decade, before becoming a group senior vice president at Ricoh. Hart was also founding director of the Fairchild/Schlumberger Artificial Intelligence Center and a founder of Syntelligence, which specializes in expert systems for financial risk analysis.

James A. Parsons

Class of 1922

Leading metallurgist; stainless steel pioneer

(1900 – 1989)

Parsons began his career in 1922 as an analytical chemist at Duriron, a leading Ohio-based metals manufacturer. He worked on aluminum/bronze alloys, achieving significant advances that earned him the Harmon Foundation Gold Medal in science. The medal was presented to Parsons by Dayton native Orville Wright.

From 1929 until 1949, Parson received eight patents—either by himself or with co-workers—involving the development and application of noncorrosive metals. The patents included advancements in iron alloys, silicon-iron compounds, silicon alloy castings, corrosion-resistant iron alloys, a cementation process for treating metals, and a nickel-based alloy. In 1941, the historically Black college Wilberforce University awarded Parsons an honorary degree, citing his prominent work as an African American metallurgical scientist. Parsons was later promoted to chief metallurgist and lab manager. He led an all-African American staff that researched aluminum bronze and tested various treatments to make iron and steel more resistant to corrosion. His work and team leadership at Duriron is credited with paving the way for the development of stainless steel.

After retirement, he joined the faculty at Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial University, a historically Black college now known as Tennessee State. He rose to Metallurgy Department chair and also served as acting dean of the College of Engineering.

Augustine Sackett

Class of 1862

Inventor of drywall/sheetrock; entrepreneur

(1841 – 1914)

After serving in the Navy during the Civil War, Sackett moved to New York City, working as a paper collar manufacturer. He launched several entrepreneurial efforts involving the use of paper as a building material. He was awarded a patent for a product used as a sheath for walls and ceilings. Over two decades, he improved the product as a replacement for the time-consuming use of wet plaster and slat boards for building walls. The final iteration of his invention, called Sackett Plaster Board, consisted of alternating layers of the mineral gypsum and paper to create a “drywall.” This new pre-made, rigid product could easily be nailed to studs in walls and could be painted or accept wallpaper. It also had the added benefit of being fireproof. Sackett received a patent for the product in 1894. As use of the product increased, Sackett sold his Sackett Plaster Board Company to the United States Gypsum Company.

Use of Sackett drywall continued to grow during the early 20th century and exploded in the post-World War II years. By 1955, half of all new homes and buildings in the country were constructed using drywall. He was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2017. The organization noted that 97% of construction projects used drywall. They went on to say that each year North American drywall companies ship enough of Sackett’s invention to circle our planet in one four-foot wide strip about 40 times. The average new house in America today contains over 6,000 feet of drywall.

Kathryn Egloff Zoon

Class of 1970

Groundbreaking immunologist and government infectious disease, allergy leader

(1948 – )

Zoon began her career studying interferon at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 1980, she and her colleagues were the first to report the purification and partial characterization of human interferon alpha. Interferon is an important protein that can inhibit virus replication. In 1980, Zoon moved to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She became the first scientist to report the specific binding of human interferon alpha to a cell surface receptor.

From 1992 to 2002, she served as director of FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation, overseeing the safety and enhancement of the nation’s blood supply, vaccines, and biological therapeutics. From 2002 to 2004, Zoon was principal deputy director of the Center for Cancer Research at the NIH National Cancer Institute. In 2006, she became the first female director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Division of Intramural Research. Zoon also served on the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Biological Standardization, the U.S. Department of Defense Malaria Vaccine Program Scientific Advisory Board, the U.S. Agency for International Development Vaccine Development Scientific Consultants Group, and the Division of Earth and Life Sciences Committee of the National Research Council. She served as president of the International Society for Interferon and Cytokine Research from 2000 to 2001.

During her career, Zoon has received numerous awards and recognition, including the 2014 William S. Hancock Award for Achievements in Chemistry, Manufacturing and Control and the 2001 Health and Human Services Secretary's Award for Distinguished Service.

About the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute enjoys a rich history shaped by the vision and accomplishments of leaders and educators who built the university and alumni who took inspiration in its halls. Since Rensselaer’s founding in 1824, these distinguished individuals have forged frontiers in industry, science, education, and technology. They have built bridges, probed outer space, revolutionized new industries and technologies, and discovered new knowledge. In 1995, the Rensselaer Alumni Association, with the full endorsement of the Institute Board of Trustees, created the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame to preserve and celebrate the exceptional heritage of alumni accomplishments throughout the years. The stories of these innovators, pioneers, and entrepreneurs provide a powerful source of inspiration for all who follow in their paths and who, like them, will continue to shape our world. For more information on the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame, visit alumni.rpi.edu/hall-of-fame.

Written By SCER Staff
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