Sheila Widnall

Institute Professor Emerita
Professor Emerita of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Contact Info

Office Phone





Administrative Contact

Frances Marrone

Financial Officer

Miroslava Parsons

Specialization and Research Interests

Boundary layer stability, unsteady hydrodynamic loads on fully wetted and supercavitating hydrofoils of finite span, unsteady lifting-surface theory, unsteady air forces on oscillating cylinders in subsonic and supersonic flow, unsteady leading-edge vortex separation from slender delta wings, tip-vortex aerodynamics, helicopter noise, aerodynamics of high-speed ground transportation vehicles, vortex stability, aircraft-wake studies, turbulence, and transition


Sheila Widnall entered MIT as a first-year in 1956. She was born in Tacoma WA. She received her BS in 1960, her MS in 1961, and her PhD in 1964. She was the first woman appointed to the faculty of the MIT School of Engineering. She majored in and received her degrees in Aeronautics and Astronautics.

She was the first woman to serve as Chair of the Faculty at MIT. She also served as Chair of numerous faculty committees such as the Committee on Discipline and the Committee on Admissions. She also chaired a number of important faculty committees to determine policies for important issues faced by MIT.

She was appointed Secretary of the Air Force by President Clinton. She was the first woman to serve in this role. As Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Widnall was responsible for all the affairs of the Department of the Air Force including recruiting, organizing, training, administration, logistical support, maintenance, and welfare of personnel. She was also responsible for the formulation of policies and programs by the Department of the Air Force; the effective cooperation and coordination between the Department of the Air Force and the other military departments and agencies of the Department of Defense; the effective and timely implementation of policy, program, and budget decisions; the effective supervision and control of the intelligence activities of the Air Force; and the presentation and justification of the positions of the Air Force on the plans, programs, and policies of the Department of Defense to include recommendations to Congress. She co-chaired the Department of Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Discrimination. Sheila Widnall stepped down from her position as Secretary of the Air Force on October 31, 1997 to return to her faculty position at MIT where she was appointed Associate Provost.

As Associate Provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Widnall had responsibility for academic integrity including conflict of interest policy, federal relations, faculty retirement, tenure and promotion policies, and international programs.

Dr. Widnall is a member and a past Vice President of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), president of the American Association for the Advance of Science (AAAS), as well as past president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the first and only woman to serve in that role. She served as a member of the NAE Council from 1992-93; of COSEPUP for 1992-93; as a member and later chair of the Draper Prize Committee, from 1988 to 1993; Membership Committee, 1992-93; member and later chair of the Aerospace Peer Committee 1989-92; Committee on Scientific Responsibility and the Conduct of Science, 1990-92; Committee on Data Needs for Monitoring Labor Market Conditions for Engineers 1987; Committee on Technology Issues that Impact International Competitiveness 1987; Nominating Committee 1986-87; US National Committee on Theoretical and Applied Mechanics 1984-88; Committee on Education and Utilization of Engineers, also Subcommittee on Engineering and Technical Systems 1983-85; Member: Space and Aeronautics Board, National Research Council (1975-1978).

She served as Co-Chair of the 2018 NAS/NAE/NIM report on the Sexual Harassment of Women in Science and Technology.

Dr. Widnall has been a trustee of the Carnegie Corporation, the Aerospace Corporation, a director of the Draper Laboratories, Chemical Fabrics Incorporated and a trustee of the Boston Museum of Science. She was a member of the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government. She served as a trustee of the Sloan Foundation, the Institute for Defense Analysis and GenCorp. She was a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Academic Degrees

B.Sc., 1960, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; M.S., 1961, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Ph.D., 1964, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Honors and Awards

Amer. Inst. of Aero. and Astro. Lawrence Sperry Achievement Award, 1972; Society of Women Engineers: Outstanding Achievement Award, 1975; Boston Museum of Science: Washburn Award, 1987; ASME Applied Mechanics Award, 1996; National Academy of Engineering Distinguished Service Award, 1993; Barnard College Medal of Distinction, 1994; W. Stuart Symington Award – Air Force Association, 1995; Boston USO Military Service Award, 1995; Maxwell A. Kriendler Memorial Award – Air Force Association, 1995; Pathfinder Award, Museum of Flight, Seattle Wash., 1996; Durand Lectureship for Public Service – American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1996; Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame, 1996; New Englander of the Year – New England Council, 1996; Defense Distinguished Service Medal, 1997; Distinguished Service Medal, NRO, 1997; Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, Department of the Navy, 1997; Goddard Award, National Space Club, 1998; James V. Hartinger Award, NDIA, 1999; Reed Aeronautic Award, 2000; Spirit of St. Louis Medal, ASME, 2001; NASA Public Service Medal, 2005

Society Memberships

Board of Directors, AIAA, 1975-1977, President, 1999-2000; Member: Space and Aeronautics Board, NRC, 1975-1978; NRC/NAS Committee on NASA Aeronautics Program Reductions, 1982; Advisory Committees: NSF-Div. of Eng., 1975; USAF: WPAFB/ASD, 1972-1975; Military Airlift Committee NDTA, 1985-1989; NSF, Dir. of Eng., 1981-1987, Vice-Chair, 1984-1987; Visiting Committee: Princeton U. Dept. Mech. & Aero Eng., 1976-1983; APS Division of Fluid Dynamics; Exec. Comm., 1979-1982), NSF Comm., 1981-82; APS Panel on Public Affairs, 1984-1987; USNC/TAM, 1984-1988; President, American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, 1988; NRC/NAE Panel on the Education and Utilization of Engineers, 1981-1984; Board of Visitors: USAF Academy, 1978-1984, Chairman, 1980-1982; Associate Editor, AIAA Journal of Aircraft, 1972-1975; Physics of Fluids, 1981-85; ASME Journal of Applied Mech., 1982-1987; ASME Comm. on Fluid Dynamics, 1982-85; AAAS: Board of Directors, 1982-1989, President, 1988-1989, Chairman, 1988-1989), Editorial Board Science, 1985-1987; NAS Committee on Scientific Responsibility, 1990-91; NAE Board on Engineering Education, 1991-1993; Draper Prize Committee, 1988-1993, Chair, 1992-1993; NAE Aerospace Peer Committee,, 1989-1991; NAE Council, 1992-1993; NAE Vice President, 1998-2005 ; National Research Council Governing Board, 1999-2005; Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, National Academies, 1999-2006 ; Columbia Accident Investigation Board, 2003; NAS Committee on Law and Science, 2001-2008; NAE Gordon Prize Committee, 2007-; AIAA Fellow Selection Committee, 2007; NAE Peer Committee Aerospace Section, 2009-present

Positions Held at MIT

Boeing, summers, 1957-1959, 1961; Aeronautical Research Institute of Sweden, summer, 1960; MIT AeroAstro, Research Staff Engineer, 1961-1962; Research Assistant, 1962-1964; Assistant Professor, 1964-1970; Associate Professor, 1970-1974; Director of University Research, U. S. Department of Transportation, 1974-1975; Professor, 1974-1986; Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1986-1993; Associate Provost, MIT, 1992-1993; Secretary of the Air Force, 1993-1997.

Positions Held outside MIT

Honorary Degrees: New England College, 1976; Lawrence University, 1987; Cedar Crest College, 1988; Mount Holyoke College, 1991; Smith College, 1990; Lafayette College, 1993; Princeton University, 1994; Suffolk Law, 1994; University of Connecticut, 2000; Northeastern University, 2000; Colorado School of Mines, 2000; The Royal Institute of Technology of Sweden, 2002; Polytechnic University, 2003; Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 2003; University of Puget Sound, 2007; Claremont Graduate University, 2008; Oxford University, 2008; Northwestern University, 2008

Teaching Interests

Undergraduate dynamics and aerodynamics, graduate level aerodynamics of wings and bodies, aeroelasticity, acoustics and aerodynamic noise, and aerospace vehicle vibration and astrodynamics

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Sheila Widnall: A lifetime exploring the unknown
During 64 years at MIT, the Institute Professor Emerita has been a trailblazer in aerospace and the U.S. military, and a changemaker for women in STEM.
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