Professor Emeritus Peter Griffith, a pioneer in heat transfer and fluid mechanics, dies at 94

Peter "Pete" Griffith ScD ’56, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at MIT and a pioneer in heat transfer and fluid mechanics, passed away at age 94 on Saturday, March 5.

Griffith was born on Sept. 23, 1927, in London but was raised in Huntington, Long Island. He spent a lot of his time in the woods and on the beach by his childhood home. Those closest to him knew that Griffith spent his time making forges and tinkering with debris he’d come across. Following his service in the U.S. Army, Griffith earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from New York University in 1950 and his master’s in mechanical engineering in 1952 from the University of Michigan, where he worked as a teaching fellow until that time. That same year, Griffith came to MIT and worked as a research assistant until 1954, when he became an instructor. In 1956, Griffith earned his ScD from MIT, where he then joined the faculty in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and would spend the remainder of his career.

Griffith was the longest-serving member of the MIT Heat Transfer Lab since its inception in the 1870s and performed research with the support of over 200 students in the fields of nuclear reactor design, supercritical water heat transfer, flow stability, two-phase flow, phase separation, and steam bubble collapse induced water hammer. His findings are published in a wide variety of literature, including mechanical, chemical, and nuclear engineering works. Griffith has approximately 100 publications in the fields of heat transfer and fluid mechanics.

Griffith’s research was sponsored by numerous industrial sponsors and government agencies including the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, General Electric, Mobil, AEP Energy, and others. When he wasn’t teaching, Griffith also spent time consulting for many of those same organizations, as well as Los Alamos National Laboratory, Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, United Technology, IBM, Thermo Electron, and more.

During Griffith’s time at MIT, he helped shape the new undergraduate curriculum by serving on the committee for Thermal Fluids Engineering to develop viable course plans for the four disciplinary course sequences. Rain, shine, or snow, he could be found riding his bike to campus. Griffith was dedicated to helping students understand the complexity of heat transfer and fluid dynamics and served on thesis committees supervising more than 200 theses.

In addition to his membership to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Griffith was a member of the American Nuclear Society. In 1997, a close colleague and mentee of Griffith, John Lienhard, established the Peter Griffith Prize, where Griffith’s friends, colleagues, and former students contributed to the award in his honor. It’s granted each year to the best undergraduate experimental project in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. During that same year, Griffith also received the J.P. Den Hartog Distinguished Educator Award. In addition to the many best paper awards he received, Griffith was awarded the Melville Medal from ASME in 1986.

Griffith is remembered by his daughter for his tremendous respect for children's capacity and rightful autonomy. She recalls the toys that he once built for her and her late sister, Sonja, who passed away in 2016. His family will never forget Griffith’s love for hosting. Reminiscing on his own time as a hungry undergrad student created a burning desire to ensure that his guests were always happy and full, especially when it came to his epic salads that they enjoyed every night without fail — some of which couldn’t even be lifted because he made them so large.

Griffith is survived by his daughter and son-in-law, Kat Griffith and Soren Hauge; his stepdaughter and son-in-law, Sara and Stephen Young; and his five grandchildren.

Left Top: Peter Griffith, second from right, gathers with his grandchildren (left to right) Pei Biorn-Hansen, Sav Hauge, Bjorn Hauge, and niece Melanie Griffith in Maine. | Right Top: Peter Griffith and his daughter, Kat | Left Bottom: Peter Griffith (center) with his son-in-law, Soren Hauge (left), and grandson, Bjorn Hauge | Right Bottom: Peter Griffith