Professor Emeritus Justin “Jake” Kerwin, an expert in propeller design and ship hydrodynamics, dies at 90

Justin “Jake” Kerwin ’53, SM ’54, PhD ’61, professor emeritus of naval architecture, passed away at the age of 90 on May 23. Kerwin, who served on MIT’s ocean engineering faculty for four decades, was an internationally recognized expert in propeller design, ship hydrodynamics, and predicting racing yacht performance.

Left to right: Sailing was a lifelong passion for Kerwin. As an undergraduate at MIT he joined the MIT Sailing Team. In his research, he developed the International Measurement System of handicapping yachts during races. Photo Courtesy of the Kerwin family | Kerwin and his wife Marilyn playing jazz as members of the Ancient Mariners. Photo Courtesy of the Kerwin family | Headshot of Justin "Jake" Kerwin 

Kerwin had an international upbringing, growing up in the Netherlands, London, and eventually New York. He first arrived at MIT as an undergraduate in 1949. In addition to studying naval architecture, Kerwin was an avid sailor and member of the MIT Sailing Team. His passion for sailing would carry throughout his career.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in from MIT in 1953 and his master’s degree in 1954, he was named a Fulbright Scholar. For his scholarship, he returned to the Netherlands, where he studied marine propeller hydrodynamics at the Delft University of Technology. Upon completing his Fulbright, Kerwin joined the U.S. Air Force as 1st Lieutenant. During his time in the Air Force, he worked on rescue boats.

Kerwin returned to MIT in 1957 to pursue his doctoral degree in marine propeller hydrodynamics while serving as a full-time lecturer. He was invited to join the then Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering (now part of the Department of Mechanical Engineering) as assistant professor in 1960, one year prior to receiving his PhD. 

For 40 years, Kerwin led the marine propeller research program at MIT. He was a pioneer in the use of computational techniques for marine propeller design and helped develop an open-source code used in propeller and turbine design. He also served as director of the Marine Hydrodynamics Water Tunnel, a water tank originally used for testing ship propellers.

In addition to propeller research, Kerwin conducted research on his lifelong passion of sailing. Alongside fellow faculty member Professor J.N. “Nick” Newman, he co-organized the H. Irving Pratt Ocean Racing Handicapping Project. The project greatly improved predictions of the speed of sailing yachts and resulted in the International Measurement System of handicapping yachts during races. He also pursued his passion in his personal life, often sailing and racing his sailboat “Chantey” with his family. 

Throughout his long career, Kerwin was celebrated with a number of prestigious awards. He was a member of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) and received SNAME’s Joseph H. Linnard Prize for exceptional publications four times. Kerwin was awarded the David W. Taylor Medal for outstanding achievements in naval architecture in 1992. Several years later, he was honored with the Gibbs Brothers Medal from the National Academy of Sciences for outstanding contributions in the field of naval architecture and marine engineering. In 2000, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

After retiring as professor emeritus in 2001, Kerwin and his wife Marilyn played jazz alongside fellow retired MIT ocean engineering faculty in a band known as the “Ancient Mariners.” He served as pianist and she played bass. The band was extremely active, playing gigs across New England and throughout the US.

Kerwin’s beloved wife Marilyn passed away just one month after him, on June 21. They are survived by their daughter Melinda and son John. A private celebration of life event has been organized by the Kerwin family.