Aeronautical engineer and historian of technology was an esteemed humanistic thinker and advocate for equality.
Leon Trilling, a professor emeritus in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and co-founder of the Massachusetts Department of Education’s statewide METCO Program, passed away on April 20. He was 93.
Trilling was born in Bialystok, Poland, on July 15, 1924, the son of Oswald and Regina (Zakhejm) Trilling. The family fled to France in the 1930s, and in 1940, Trilling came to the United States and enrolled as an undergraduate at Caltech. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1946.
Trilling received a BS in mechanical engineering in 1944, a master of science in 1946, and a PhD in aeronautics in 1948, all from Caltech. He was also for a time a Caltech research fellow and instructor. After a year in Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship, he began his MIT career in 1951 as a research associate in the Department of Aeronautical Engineering, which eight years later was renamed the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro). Trilling spent 1963 studying gas dynamics at the University of Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship.
At MIT, Trilling focused his research on the development of jet aircraft; the history of engineering, technology, and science; and the role of the science and mathematics curricula in middle schools. In 1978, in addition to his position in AeroAstro, he joined the faculty of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, based in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, where his teaching centered on the history of engineering, technology, and science — in particular, the relationship between technology and the military.
Trilling’s community involvement began in 1965. He and his family had settled in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he served as president of the Brookline School Committee. He was well aware of the lack of diversity in the classroom. He believed that equal economic and cultural opportunity begins with equal educational opportunity, and he helped to design a program that would expand public school students’ educational opportunities, increase diversity, and reduce racial isolation by allowing individuals to attend schools in communities other than their own.
Concerned Brookline residents including Governor Michael Dukakis and his wife Kitty worked closely with Trilling to transform his idea into reality. “This was a time when people of color could not live in the town of Brookline,” Dukakis recalls. “Leon was deeply involved. He was active at a time when some of these ridiculous prejudices and biases were beginning to crumble. He had a very strong set of values, and we greatly admired what he did.”
In 1966, Trilling’s vision of educational equality became METCO. The program has expanded beyond Brookline, and today, as administered by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is the second-oldest voluntary program in the country dedicated to increasing diversity in schools.
Trilling’s leadership helped bridge cultural and racial differences and increase diversity on the MIT campus as well. He founded MIT’s Integrated Studies Program; played pivotal roles in the Office of Minority Education, the MIT Second Summer Program, and the Course XVI Outreach Committee; served as academic advisor to the MITES program; and co-directed the New Liberal Arts program. He was a senior staff member of The Institute for Learning and Teaching and was passionate about introducing minority students to science and engineering.
Professor Emeritus Louis Bucciarelli ’66, was a student of Trilling’s in the early 1960s while studying for his PhD in aeronautics and astronautics, and later, he became Trilling’s colleague in the department. “Throughout my years on the faculties of the School of Engineering and the program in STS, Leon was a natural ally in working to broaden undergraduate education,” says Bucciarelli. “He was always available to hear me out, to read and critique my proposals and essays. He was a mentor who showed how, with clear thinking, persistence and drive, it was possible to bridge the cultures of engineering and the humanities at MIT.”
In 1972, Trilling invited Wesley Harris, now the C. S. Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, to join the MIT faculty. “He served as my mentor, my guide, and my counselor,” says Harris. “He provided a philosophical basis that allowed me as an African American to flourish in a sharply racist environment. He had a sense of humanity that he exercised in such a way that everything he touched became better.”
In a 2002 interview with Clarence G. Williams, founder of MIT’s Black History Project, Trilling explained, “The essence is to create an atmosphere which is encouraging to young people of a minority background who would consider the possibility of careers in the field, to keep them interested, to keep them confident that they can do the job, and to show them that there are role models for them at MIT to be sure, and elsewhere, also.”
Merritt Roe Smith, the Cutten Professor of the History of Technology in the STS program, remembers Trilling as one of the first professors he met when he came to MIT in 1978. “I remember him as a true gentleman scholar, whose European background and education made him a special type of intellectual who deeply appreciated the humanistic and social science dimensions of engineering,” he says.
“We ended up teaching a course together on the role of the military as a catalyst of technological change. It was in that class that I came to appreciate his technical expertise and how he deftly combined it with a wide-ranging knowledge of the history of science and technology. He was a genuinely good person who cared a lot about students of all ages. I will miss him. His was a special presence among us.”
After his retirement in 1994, Trilling continued teaching at MIT for another 23 years. As recently as 2016, Trilling took public transportation to Kendall Square in Cambridge each day and climbed the steep stairway to the MIT campus. In a video produced that year by Jonathan Sachs for Boston’s Commission on Affairs of the Elderly, Trilling revealed his secret to longevity. “Keep busy,” he said. “Get yourself emotionally involved, and feel that you’re doing something useful.”
Trilling explained the motivation for his work in justice and civil rights in his interview with Williams. “It comes from having come as a Polish Jew to the United States in 1940 and having been welcomed for what I was, given every opportunity and being … profoundly inspired by this hospitality,” he said. “In fact, this is what the United States means to me most, that it is an open society which believes in and tries to promote equality of opportunity.”
In 1996, Trilling received MIT’s Martin Luther King Leadership Award in recognition of his “deep and enduring commitment to improving the quality of education for people of color.”
Harris describes Trilling as “a true renaissance man, a learned scholar, a highly cultured individual, and extremely well read.” Generations of students will remember him for his insights and inspiration, his soft-spoken manner, and his signature red neckties.
Trilling was preceded in death by his wife, Edna. He is survived by two sons, Roger and Alex, and one daughter-in-law, Marlene.
The Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics will sponsor a memorial service for Trilling on Thursday, May 31 at 4 p.m. in the MIT Chapel. For more information and to rsvp, visit bit.ly/trilling-memorial.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Trilling’s name may be made to the American Civil Liberties Union.