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James L. Massey (1934-2013)

Deb Gillean • DATE: June 19, 2013

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Dr. James L. Massey, a pioneer in digital communications and a member of the Notre Dame family for more than 60 years, died June 16 at the age of 79 at his home in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Jim Massey came to Notre Dame as an undergraduate; he was the valedictorian of the Class of 1956, inching out his twin brother (and salutatorian) Gerald Massey by a fraction of a GPA point.  After three years of service in the U.S. Marines, he pursued his graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering in 1962.  He then returned to Notre Dame, where he was a member of the faculty in the Department of Electrical Engineering from 1962 to 1977.

Dr. Massey’s research specialty was coding and information theory – techniques for improving the efficiency and reliability of digital communication systems and the establishment of fundamental limits on the same.  His fifteen years as a professor at Notre Dame were a time of tremendous growth in the field, and Dr. Massey became an internationally regarded expert, carrying out research sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation.  He also had the distinction of holding the first endowed faculty chair at the University of Notre Dame, the Frank M. Freimann Chair in Electrical Engineering, established in 1971.

After leaving Notre Dame, Dr. Massey took a faculty position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, where he continued his research in digital communications and expanded into the field of cryptography.  Over the course of his career he helped to co-found two companies – Codex Corporation (later a division of Motorola) and Cylink Corporation.  He stayed at ETH until his retirement in 1998, when he moved to Copenhagen and took an adjunct position at the University of Lund in Lund, Sweden.

Among the many honors awarded to Dr. Massey over his career were his election to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and (as an honorary member) the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.  He was the 1992 recipient of the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal, awarded once a year by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers “For exceptional contributions to the advancement of communications sciences and engineering.”  He also received the 1988 Shannon Award from the IEEE Information Theory Society as well as the 1999 Marconi Prize.

Dr. Massey remained devoted to Notre Dame throughout his life, returning to campus often, including a 2000 visit when he presented his Marconi Prize and his Bell Medal to the Department of Electrical Engineering, where they remain on display.  And each year, one of the top EE undergrads at Notre Dame is selected to receive the “James L. Massey Award” for outstanding academic performance.