DES MOINES, Iowa – S. Donald Stookey was a young scientist researching the properties of glass in 1952 when he put a glass plate into an oven to heat it. But the oven malfunctioned.
Instead of heating to about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, the oven shot up to more than 1,600 degrees. Stookey expected to find a molten mess. Instead, he found an opaque, milky-white plate.
As he was removing it from the oven, his tongs slipped, and the plate fell to the floor. But instead of shattering, it bounced.
Stookey, who died Tuesday at 99, had just discovered glass ceramics – a breakthrough that soon led to the development of CorningWare, the durable, heat-resistant ceramic glass used to make millions upon millions of baked lasagnas, tuna casseroles and other potluck-dinner dishes.
Never miss a local story.
Although he was never a household name, Stookey’s best-known invention found a home in most American kitchens in the form of white dishes decorated with small blue cornflowers.
The space-age material was so strong that the military used it in guided missile nose cones.
Stookey died at an assisted-living center in Rochester, New York, said his son Donald Stookey. He said his father broke a hip in a fall a few months ago and underwent surgery, but his health deteriorated.
“He was one of the great glass scientists in the history of the world,” said Steve Feller, a physics professor at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Stookey earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry and mathematics and remained active in alumni activities. “Virtually everyone has had CorningWare at some point in time, and there were all sorts of spinoff applications from his fantastic work.”
CorningWare was celebrated for its versatility. It was strong enough to withstand minor kitchen mishaps, and it gave home cooks the ability to bake and serve food in the same dish. The dishes could go straight from the oven to the dinner table and then into the refrigerator or freezer.
You could also put them in a microwave, and some types could be heated atop a stove. For decades, they were a common sight at family gatherings, church dinners and holiday feasts.
Stookey joined Corning Glass Works in New York in 1940, the same year he graduated with a doctorate in physical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He immersed himself in research, studying the complex chemistry of oxidation and its effects on glass, according to a company biography.
Corning patented its glass ceramics as Pyroceram. By the end of the 1950s, CorningWare had become one of the company’s most successful product lines.
“He was fearless – the unknown never daunted him,” said David Morse, Corning’s chief technology officer. “He was an unassuming and quiet but tough person,” whose numerous inventions generated big businesses for the company. “Don was recognized throughout the glass technology community as a world-class scientist.”
In a 2011 interview, Stookey said he initially viewed glass research as a way to make money, but he became intrigued by glass’ special characteristics.
“I thought this might be a field where I could find something new, invent things not seen before, and I was lucky to have that be the case,” he said in a video project funded by the History Channel for the Corning Museum of Glass.
Stookey held the patent on CorningWare, according to his son, who believes his father made money on a percentage of the sales but did not get rich.
In the late 1960s, the elder Stookey felt burned-out and out of ideas, the son said. He offered to leave the company. The family that started Corning told him to take a year off with pay. He traveled the world and returned to spend another 20 years with the company.
CorningWare is still sold today, although it is now marketed by World Kitchen LLC, a Rosemont, Illinois-based company formed after Corning Inc. spun off its consumer-products division in 1998.
Stookey earned 60 U.S. patents. His other innovations included developing photosensitive glass that helped lead to color television picture tubes.
He received the National Medal of Technology from President Ronald Reagan in 1987. In 2010, at age 94, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
“Half of his life was being a professional, well-known scientist, and the other half was fully being a father to three of us kids, a family man and a good husband,” Stookey’s son said. “He took us hunting and fishing and on vacations around the country and around the world.”
Stookey was born in Hay Springs, Nebraska, on May 23, 1915. His family moved from Nebraska to Cedar Rapids when he was 6. He graduated from Coe College in 1936 before earning a master’s degree in chemistry from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, followed by the MIT doctorate.