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Presentation of the Clarence E. Davies Medal for Engineering Achievement

“A Daring, Delightful, and Distinguished Engineer”

Remarks by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

CBIS Auditorium
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Monday, May 5, 2014


Today, we honor one of the Rensselaer’s most distinguished alumnae—as well as one of its most daring and delightful.

Dr. Nancy DeLoye Fitzroy was the first woman to receive a degree in Chemical Engineering from Rensselaer, in 1949.

She decided on chemical engineering, in part, because the opportunities for women in engineering were so very scarce, she felt it was useful to have chemistry to fall back on. She thought that since there were plenty of women washing bottles in chemistry laboratories, she was sure, at least, to get a job.

She truly felt accepted at Rensselaer, and when asked whether it was difficult to be the lone woman in her program, she said, “I was having too good a time to notice.”

Having too good a time to notice is a theme throughout a career in which Dr. Fitzroy was frequently the first woman through the door. Whenever her abilities were doubted because of her gender, she cheerfully treated such ignorance with the neglect it deserved. She paid no attention—and, I quote, “just did her own thing.”

Shortly after graduating, she began a 37 year-career at General Electric. Though she was hired, at first, as an “engineering assistant” because full-fledged women engineers were unheard-of, she soon became known around the world as an expert in heat transfer and fluid flow, and advised many other engineers on their thorniest problems.

Dr. Fitzroy worked at the forefront of emerging technologies in energy and aerospace. She was one of the first engineers to consider heat transfer in nuclear reactor cores, and in satellites, whose sensitive electronics needed to remain at room temperature while the satellite skin was subjected to extremes of hot and cold.

She also engineered advances in more commonplace technologies, including toasters. With typical modesty and wit, she has pointed out that toasters can be more challenging than rockets and satellites: while space is relatively uniform, bread is almost infinitely various.

Dr. Fitzroy holds three patentsand has written more than 100 technical papers.

An avid aviator, she flew her own plane— “Nancy’s Fancy”—and became one of the first women helicopter pilots. She married Roland V. Fitzroy, also an engineer, also brilliant and brave, who served as an undercover operative during World War II. Together, the Fitzroys lived with considerable brio—flying, skiing, and sailing all over the globe.

Dr. Fitzroy also encouraged other women to cast off their fears with the same ease as she had, encouraging them to become pilots—as well as to design tools of flight as engineers. A leader in her profession, she was the 105th president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, or ASME—and the first woman to hold the presidency of a major engineering society. Each year, ASME awards the Nancy DeLoye Fitzroy and Roland V. Fitzroy Medal for pioneering work that leads to breakthrough technologies.

In 2008, the ASME named her to honorary membership, recognizing her—and I quote—“tireless efforts and lasting influence as an advocate of the mechanical engineering profession.” Dr. Fitzroy also is an Honorary Fellow of Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers (1988), and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (1995).

With these honors, accolades and associations, Dr. Fitzroy has taken every possible opportunity to convey the excitement of engineering to young people, particularly girls, and to urge them to cast off their diffidence and embrace the thrill of innovating.

Even today, however, engineering is a profession in which men outnumber women by 7 to 1—an imbalance Rensselaer is working hard to correct. We are grateful for the strong and longstanding support Dr. Fitzroy has shown for our mission in education and research, including endowing the Nancy DeLoye Fitzroy Scholarship for a woman pursuing a course of study in engineering.

In 1975, the Rensselaer Alumni Association awarded Dr. Fitzroy the Albert Fox Demers Medal for outstanding service to Rensselaer. In 1990, Rensselaer awarded her an honorary doctorate in engineering. In 1999, Dr. Fitzroy was proudly inducted into the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame.

Now, I invite her to join me here on the stage.

Today…

  • because your vision and leadership have contributed so much to the development of technology and its application in the field of heat transfer;
  • because you have had such an impact as a powerful example and voice for engineering, particularly for women in engineering;
  • and because you exemplify what we mean at Rensselaer, when we say to our students, “Why not change the world?”…

Rensselaer bestows upon you its highest honor in engineering achievement.

Dr. Fitzroy, once again, you are the first woman to receive this honor.

However, I suspect that, true to form, you will not pay much attention to the “first woman” distinction—but instead focus on continuing the adventure of accomplishing so much in the profession you love.

With that, please join me in congratulating the 2014 recipient of the Clarence E. Davies Medal for Engineering Achievement, Dr. Nancy DeLoye Fitzroy of the Rensselaer Class of 1949…


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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