Michael Stephen Feld: Remembering an influential pioneer in physics, spectroscopy, and bio-optical medicine

July 1, 2010
Michael S. Feld (1940 – 2010) ranged over a wide intellectual landscape. During his more than fifty years in physics and biomedicine, he pioneered on several frontiers.

by Charles H. Holbrow

Michael S. Feld (1940 - 2010) ranged over a wide intellectual landscape. During his more than fifty years in physics and biomedicine, he pioneered on several frontiers. His career began with fundamental discoveries in laser science and ended as he was producing exciting, innovative developments in biomedical optics and biomedical physics.

Feld enjoyed crossing boundaries, and he savored diversity of ideas, of research fields, of colleagues, and of collaborators.

He had a gift for building collaborations across disciplines. He was Director of MIT's Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory from 1976 until his death on April 10, 2010, and he made the Spectroscopy Laboratory a place that welcomed scientists of all ages and nationalities and from many disciplines. Under his direction the Laboratory became a center for a variety of productive collaborations. He institutionalized and increased funding for such cooperative research by establishing, with NSF support, the MIT Regional Laser Research Facility, and, with support from NIH, the Laser Biological Research Center (LBRC). He worked closely with collaborators from the Cleveland Clinic and from Massachusetts General Hospital. He was an Affiliated Member of the MIT-Harvard Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program, and he supervised the doctoral work of men and women in that program and also in chemical engineering, bioengineering, and materials research, as well as in physics. Many of his former students and post-docs have become leaders in health science or physics.


In the later part of his career Feld became known for innovative applications of laser spectroscopy to biomedicine and biomedical engineering. With his post-doctoral associates and students he developed the spectroscopic examination of cells and tissue, new kinds of microscopy, and novel uses of electric fields to study cell behavior.

In 1985 he showed that fluorescence could be used to diagnose atherosclerosis, and that work opened the field of spectral diagnosis of disease. The LBRC provided a framework within which Feld did research that developed further medical applications of spectroscopy. The applications included use of Raman spectroscopy by Feld and his collaborators to diagnose atherosclerosis and breast cancer and to make non-invasive blood glucose measurements. They went on to develop multi-modal spectroscopy techniques for diagnosing and imaging cervical and oral neoplasia, and they developed 3-D tomographic microscopy for imaging living cells.

Feld's earliest research interests were in basic laser science. Ali Javan, inventor of the He-Ne laser, supervised Feld's PhD thesis, and the two worked together in the 1960s---the golden age of laser physics. Feld's results on laser-induced line narrowing of coupled Doppler-broadened transitions were important to the development of Doppler-free two-photon spectroscopy. After he became a member of the MIT faculty in 1968, he continued to work on basic laser science. In 1973 he made the first experimental observations of superradiance: the spontaneous collective emission of radiation from an assemblage of excited atoms. Later he directed a series of experiments on the radiation of a single, isolated atom in an optical resonator. These resulted in the first demonstration of enhanced spontaneous emission and radiative level shifts in an open optical resonator and in the development of the single atom laser.

Always interested in novel applications of lasers, Feld collaborated with nuclear physicists to measure laser induced optical emissions from radioactive atoms. These experiments were done in the Spectroscopy Laboratory with radioactive sources and showed that laser interactions with atomic electrons could alter the spatial pattern of the radiations emitted by the atoms' nuclei.

Honors and Prizes

Feld received the Thompson Award in 1991 for the development of biomedical Raman spectroscopy, and the Vinci d'Excellence (France) in 1995 for development of the single atom laser. In 1992, he was the Wolk Visitor and Lecturer at Colgate University. He was 1996 Distinguished Baetjer Colloquium speaker at Princeton University. In 2003, he received the Lamb Medal of the Physics of Quantum Electronics Conference for the first experimental demonstrations of superradiance and the microlaser, and for pioneering applications of optics to biological physics. In 2008, the Optical Society of America gave him its prestigious William F. Meggers Award in recognition of his major contributions to the foundations of laser spectroscopy and his pioneering developments in the application of spectroscopy to biomedicine.


Michael Feld died of complications arising from multiple myeloma. He knew since 2002 that he had this fatal disease, but characteristically he squeezed a great deal of life and work from the eight years that intensive medical care was able to give him. He married; he traveled three times to Australia, to India, several times to Europe, and to Japan; he oversaw the Ph.D. thesis work of a dozen students; and he (and they) published some 90 articles. Characteristically, he also collaborated with his personal physician to study his disease; he used his own terminal illness to advance medical research.

Charles H. Holbrow, Charles A. Dana Professor of Physics, Emeritus, retired from Colgate University in 2003.

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