Salvatore P. Sutera, former Engineering dean and professor, 90

Sutera was chair of mechanical engineering & materials science and founding chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering

Sal Sutera

Salvatore P. Sutera, former dean of the Engineering school at Washington University in St. Louis and the Spencer T. Olin Emeritus Professor, died Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in St. Louis. He was 90.

For more than 40 years, Sutera was an academic leader at Washington University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science, serving as the school’s dean from 2008 to 2010, and was an internationally recognized scholar in biomechanics. He and his collaborators made many contributions to the understanding of blood flow in the mammalian microcirculation, flow-induced trauma to blood in artificial organs, and mechanical properties of the red blood cell in health and disease. His research programs won continuous sponsorship from the National Institutes of Health, and his publications include nearly 100 technical papers and two book chapters.

 “In a testament to his dedication to the School, in 2008 Sal agreed to come out of retirement after several years to serve as interim dean after a tumultuous leadership transition,” said Aaron F. Bobick, dean and the James M. McKelvey Professor. “Sal was not only a successful and respected administrator, but he was also internationally recognized for his research in biomechanics and was a great mentor and friend to many faculty and students.”

“This is the end of an era,” said David Peters, the McDonnell Douglas Professor of Engineering. “Sal became chair when I was a junior, and he was relentless in talking me into coming back to WashU as a professor. He was always a great friend.” 

Under his leadership as dean, the school set new records in the quality, size and diversity of the student body. He oversaw the launch of several new master’s programs and also interdisciplinary undergraduate minors in mechatronics and energy engineering. Sutera recruited 10 tenured and tenure-track faculty, increasing the total size of the faculty to 81. Perhaps the most visible development during his tenure as dean was the construction of Stephen F. & Camilla T. Brauer Hall, a 150,875-square-foot building featuring state-of-the-art research laboratories and specialized instructional facilities, in 2010.

Sutera joined the faculty at Washington University in 1968 as professor of mechanical engineering and served as chair of mechanical engineering from 1968 to 1982, then again from 1985 to 1997. After the university created the new Department of Biomedical Engineering in 1996, Sutera also served as the founding and acting chair of biomedical engineering during the department’s first year. In 1997, he was installed as the first Spencer T. Olin Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, an endowed professorship he held until his retirement. Over the course of his 40-year career at Washington University, Sutera touched the lives of thousands of engineering students, both as a professor in the classroom and laboratory and also as department chair and dean.

“An accomplished scholar, wise mentor and supportive colleague, Sal was a golden role model for any professor or department chair,” said Philip V. Bayly, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science and the Lee Hunter Distinguished Professor. “He recruited and nurtured a generation of faculty in mechanical engineering at Washington University, building outsized strength in biomechanics, fluids, and materials research, along with an uncompromising commitment to undergraduate education. He welcomed me and my family to St. Louis and guided me gently through my early years on the faculty and as chair of MEMS. For all Sal’s many contributions to engineering and Washington University, I remember his kindness and courtesy the most.”

“The scope of Sal’s legacy is remarkable,” said Guy Genin, the Harold and Kathleen Faught Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “As chair of mechanical engineering, he recruited one of the premiere structural materials research groups — in the 1970s and 80s, WashU became a world leader in composites and fatigue. As founder of the Washington University Department of Biomedical Engineering, he hand-picked the original faculty that grew into much renowned program.  As dean, his diplomacy piloted us through troubled waters and led us to the new and exciting opportunities we're exploring today. Underlying all of these professional achievements was a steadfast friend and a true gentleman who contributed much to the warm, collaborative spirit that continues to define WashU engineering.”

Before joining Washington University, Sutera was a faculty member at Brown University, where he worked from 1960 to 1968. During his last two years at Brown, he served as executive officer for the Division of Engineering. 

In addition to his academic career, Sutera held several industrial positions, including at the Glen L. Martin Co., Baltimore; North American Aviation, Downey, California; E.I. duPont de Nemours & Co., Newark and Wilmington, Delaware; and Electro-Optical Systems Inc., Pasadena, California. 

Throughout his career, Sutera was active in numerous professional societies, among them the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, American Society for Engineering Education, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Biomedical Engineering Society and the North American Society of Biorheology.

Sutera earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1954 from Johns Hopkins University and a master’s degree and doctorate in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1955 and 1960, respectively. A native of Baltimore, Sutera, who was the first Sutera to attend college, he credited his education at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute with getting him off to a good start in academia.

In 1956, Sutera spent the year as a Fulbright Fellow in Paris conducting research in a French government laboratory. In addition to the year in Paris as a student, Sutera spent a semester as a visiting professor at the University of Paris in 1973. He also was an active member of the Alliance Française of St. Louis for several decades, served on the Board of Directors of St. Louis-Lyon Sister Cities Inc., and was an active board member of the Italian Club of St. Louis for many years.

Sutera is survived by his wife, Celia; brother, Tom; daughters Marie Woodruff and her husband, Bob; Annette Sutera; and Michelle Ludwig and her husband, Danny; four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

A memorial mass will be held at 10 a.m. Nov. 25, with visitation from 9-10 a.m. at Immacolata Catholic Parish, 8900 Clayton Road, Richmond Heights, Missouri.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Sutera Family Endowed Scholarship for Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.

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