College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

In memory of David Wilder, former MSE department chair and alumnus

Color photo of David Wilder, smiling and wearing a hat and scarf around his neck
Color photo of David Wilder, smiling and wearing a hat and scarf around his neck
David Wilder

David Wilder, professor emeritus and former chair of the Iowa State University Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), passed away on Aug. 18, 2021, at the age of 92. He retired from Iowa State in May 1991 after a long and impactful career.

Wilder began his time at ISU as an undergraduate student, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1951, and he went on to earn his master’s in 1952 and his Ph.D. in 1958, all in ceramic engineering. While a student, Wilder was in the marching band, was a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society, and lived in Friley Hall. 

Black and white headshot photo of David Wilder in a suit and tie
Official ISU headshot photo of David Wilder. Courtesy of ISU Library Archives.

He started working at Ames Laboratory in 1952, where he served in many roles from junior engineer all the way to division chief and senior engineer, and he joined the engineering staff in 1955 as an instructor in what was then the Department of Ceramic Engineering. Wilder moved up the ranks to assistant professor, associate professor and then professor and chairman by 1961, succeeding Charles M. Dodd as chair — he held the titles of professor and chairman, and then professor and head, of ceramic engineering until 1975. He also served as acting head of the Department of Architecture at one point.

Article from the Ames Daily Tribune newspaper in 1966 about David Wilder and what students in ceramic engineering were working on
Ames Daily Tribune article from 1966 about David Wilder and the ceramics engineering department. Click to enlarge and read the full article. Courtesy of ISU Library Archives.

In 1975, the merger of ceramic engineering and metallurgy resulted in what is today known as the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE); from that point, Wilder was professor and chairman of MSE until 1988. He finished his work in the department as professor of MSE until his retirement.

Wilder’s son, Michael Wilder, wrote the following in a message to the department: “Just a short week ago, we witnessed the passing of my father, David Wilder. His was a long and fruitful life, and we are deeply grateful for all that made for this brilliant man and his gentle spirit. I wanted to be sure to touch base with you, knowing what a special place my dad held for our shared alma mater. Thank you for your leadership and care in sustaining the formidable resource that is Materials Science and Engineering at Iowa State University. I know that Dad was most thankful for the opportunity that was his in the many years that he was directly among you. ISU was always close to Dad’s heart and to many of us in our broader family.”

In 1966, when Wilder was chairman of ceramic engineering, the Ames Daily Tribune newspaper ran a story about him and the department, including a photo of Wilder with a microscope. 

1966 news release from Ames Laboratory, announcing the establishment of David Wilder as Chief of the newly-organized Ceramic and Mechanical Engineering Division at Ames Lab.
1966 news release from Ames Laboratory, announcing the establishment of David Wilder as Chief of the newly-organized Ceramic and Mechanical Engineering Division at Ames Lab. Click to enlarge and read the full release. Courtesy of ISU Library Archives.

“The ceramic engineering department at ISU is turning out graduates who can and do go into industry, valuable immediately,” the article states. “ISU students under Dr. Wilder are using molten glass, sprayed under intensely high pressure to give a missile nose cone a uniform and unvarying coat. This process gives exact contours and composition of glass fibers, allowing for such a minute fraction of tolerance that radar rays can penetrate it without any distortion. Not too many years ago, ceramics meant brick and tile, abrasives, glasses and porcelains. The ceramic engineer today is also concerned with such ultra-modern problems as the study of properties of materials used in transistors, lasers and other electronic devices… The Iowa State University ceramics engineering department is turning out engineers who not only know how to utilize existing materials but who can design new materials to satisfy specified needs.”

Iowa State Daily article about David Wilder becoming chair of the ceramic engineering department. featuring a headshot photo.
Iowa State Daily article from 1961 announcing David Wilder’s appointment to professor and chairman of the Department of Ceramic Engineering at Iowa State. Click to enlarge and read the full article. Courtesy of ISU Library Archives.

During his time at Iowa State, Wilder taught courses such as Introduction to Ceramic Engineering, Ceramics in the Modern World, and High Temperature Processes; his research was centered on ceramic processing for nuclear applications. 

He was professionally active and received many honors and awards. Wilder was a registered professional engineer with several technical publications and patents; a fellow of the American Ceramic Society, the Iowa Academy of Science, and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET); and a member of the National Institute of Ceramic Engineers, Keramos, the Ceramic Educational Council (Trustee), National Association for the Directors of International Agriculture (Vice Chairperson), Sigma Xi, Tau Beta Pi, and the Knights of St. Patrick. 

A lifelong Cyclone fan, Wilder was a member of the ISU 25 Club since 1977 and was a recipient of the ISU Alumni Association’s Superior Service Award. Wilder had four children with his wife of 70 years, Donna, and many grandchildren, some of whom graduated from Iowa State as well. Wilder’s grandson, David Lantz, graduated from the Iowa State MSE department and is now a group lead at NASA in Houston.

Four former department chairs of MSE stand together smiling for the picture
Four former chairs of the MSE department (L-R): Mufit Akinc, Kristen Constant, Richard LeSar, David Wilder. Courtesy of Kristen Constant.

Kristen Constant, Iowa State Vice President and Chief Information Officer, served as MSE department chair from 2012-2017 and has been a distinguished faculty member since 1992. She received her bachelor’s degree in ceramic engineering during the time that Wilder was chair of MSE. 

“I very distinctly remember his suggestion that I look into graduate school (for a Ph.D., no less) at Northwestern,” Constant said. “His support, along with that of David Martin (longtime faculty member in ceramic engineering from 1971-2000), gave me confidence to do more than I thought possible. I know that he made a difference in many lives. He will be greatly missed.”  

Iver Anderson of the MSE department and Ames Laboratory was also impacted by time spent with Wilder.

“I was able to overlap with Dave only about a year after I came in a professional sense, but he was a long-time neighbor of mine after that,” Anderson said. “I also have many fond memories of his very supportive conversations when I was just starting into advising graduate students and doing my research tasks in Ames Lab. May he rest in peace.”