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McGill congratulates its second Nobel-winning alumnus of 2009

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Published: 6 Oct 2009

Father of digital photography Willard Boyle shares Physics prize for co-invention of CCD sensor

Father of digital photography Willard Boyle shares Physics prize for co-invention of CCD sensor

McGill University has offered congratulations to Willard Boyle, an award-winning 1950 PhD graduate in physics, who has won a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physics.

Boyle, the retired Executive Director of Research at the Communications Sciences Division of Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., shares the prize with his Bell Laboratories collaborator George E. Smith, along with Charles K. Kao of the Standard Telecommunications Laboratory in Harlow, England, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Boyle and Smith were awarded their share of the prize for the 1969 invention of the charged-couple device (CCD), a semiconductor circuit capable of sensing light and images, the core technology behind today's digital photography revolution.

Boyle is the second McGill alumnus to receive a Nobel Prize in the past 24 hours. On Oct. 5, Jack Szostak - a 1972 undergraduate in cell biology - was co-awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.

"As Principal of McGill, I am delighted by the Nobel committee's decision, and on behalf of the McGill community, offer Dr. Boyle our warmest congratulations on his important accomplishments as a scientist and researcher," McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum said. "Dr. Boyle's award underscores the very real importance of transferring laboratory research - in this case a key component of the modern digital camera - to commercial applications that can benefit everyone.

"To have two of our graduates win shares of Nobel Prizes on consecutive days is indeed remarkable. I know I speak for the entire McGill community when I say that we are extremely proud of Dr. Boyle and Dr. Szostak and the advances they pioneered."

Boyle, a multi-award winning researcher, was born on Aug. 19, 1924, in Amherst, Nova Scotia. He served in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War, and subsequently entered McGill where he received a BSc (1947), MSc (1948) and PhD (1950).

In 1953, Boyle joined Bell Laboratories, where he invented the first continuously operating ruby laser with Don Nelson in 1962. He was made director of Space Science and Exploratory Studies at Bell Labs subsidiary Bellcomm in 1962, providing support for the Apollo space program and helping to select lunar landing sites. He returned to Bell Labs in 1964, working on the development of integrated circuits.

In 1969, challenged by their boss to come up with "something new" in the area of solid-state semi-conductors, Boyle and Smith brainstormed the charged-couple device into existence on a blackboard over a single afternoon. Their colleagues were initially dubious about the radical notion of moving pockets of electrical charge in a silicon matrix, but within months, the idea had proved its merit and touched off a revolution in the integrated circuit field whose repercussions are still being felt today.

Boyle has previously received numerous awards for this and other groundbreaking discoveries, including the Ballantyne Medal of the Franklin Institute (1973), the Progress Medal of The Photographic Society of America and induction into the Canadian Science & Engineering Hall of Fame (2005), among many others. He currently lives in Halifax.

Boyle and Szostak join the four earlier McGill alumni who have been awarded a Nobel Prize:

  • Rudolph Marcus, BSc'43, PhD'46, received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his theory of electron transfer.
  • David Hubel, BSc'47, MDCM'51, was co-recipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his groundbreaking work on visual perception.
  • American particle physicist Val Fitch, BEng'48, was co-recipient of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics for an experiment conducted in 1964 that disproved the long-held theory that particle interaction should be indifferent to the direction of time.
  • Endocrinologist Andrew Victor Schally, BSc'55, PhD'59, DSc'79, was the co-recipient of the 1977 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his research on hormones.

Photo: Courtesy of the National Academy of Engineering

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