Hall of Distinction Class of 2006-2007

From planning instrumentation lab experiments to developing mathematical models of hand joints, David "Dave" Elton Thompson, has led his students to search for and to discover the underlying fundamental principles involved.  A native of Port Arthur, Texas, Thompson’s varied professional career includes work as a Test Engineer on a General Dynamics’ flight line, when the first swept-wing production aircraft in the world, the F-111, had its maiden flight.  His academic career began when he taught thermodynamics part-time at what is now the University of Texas at Arlington.

With a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Lamar University (Beaumont, Texas) and an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Louisiana Polytechnic Institute (Ruston, Louisiana), Thompson’s love for research eventually took him to Purdue University (West Lafayette, Indiana), where he taught as a full-time instructor and simultaneously studied for his doctorate.  While juggling these dual responsibilities, Thompson bought and restored his first Porsche, a 1955 356 model 1500 Super Coupe, claiming that restoring the old Porsche, a skill he learned from his father, helped him through the hard times in graduate school.

In 1969, Thompson became an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Louisiana State University, when faculty positions in universities across the nation were scarce.  He is grateful that Dr. Charlie Whitehurst, his major professor at Louisiana Tech, informed him of the opportunity, and that the ME Department hired him.  The great majority of his textbook written at LSU, Design Analysis: Mathematical Modeling of Nonlinear Systems, was inspired by and dedicated to Robert Kohr, a favorite professor at Purdue who died in a plane crash.  To ensure the survival of Kohr’s work, Thompson began teaching it, continually adding his own problems and material.

Named a Full Professor in 1977, Thompson engaged in research in many different fields and arenas, including biomechanics, which integrated the new fields of computer graphics and physically-based modeling.  His ground-breaking work also extended to computer graphic input devices, speech recognition, artificial intelligence, parallel computing (using networked computers), 3D representations of the human body derived from CT scans, and the first known computer graphics simulation of a surgical procedure on the hand.  One of only six individuals ever invited by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) to speak on mathematical modeling and computing, Thompson, along with a team of physicians, surgeons, engineers, and therapists at the Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease Center (Carville, Louisiana), also helped revolutionize medical practices in diabetes treatment and reconstructive hand surgery.

Thompson’s unique research reflects his basic philosophy:  research should always have education as a primary objective.  As a result, Thompson helped initiate the first campus computer network, through a proposal to teach interactive graphics using the campus as a virtual teaching laboratory.  Aided by Chancellor James Wharton, funds sequestered from the tidelands offshore oil settlement by the Board of Regents and an in-kind grant from Digital Equipment Corporation were used to install a fiber optic star network.  Broad support from the administration, the staff, the faculty, and many students, along with a small dedicated team of networking and systems software personnel, has made this endeavor successful.  Most importantly, it has dramatically enhanced the research and academic environment at LSU. 

From 1993 to 1999, David chaired the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque, New Mexico), during which time he was elected as a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering.  From 1999 to 2005, he served as Dean of Engineering at the University of Idaho (Moscow, Idaho).  For elevating the quality of engineering education by bringing programs across Idaho together, Dean Thompson was honored by his fellow deans.  On stepping down from his position, he was subsequently granted the title Professor and Dean Emeritus.

Thompson and his wife, the former Margaret Ellen Gerrietts, reside in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he intends to develop entrepreneurial approaches to societal needs.   They have two sons, David and Matthew, who have followed in their dad’s footsteps, not only to become mechanical engineers, but also to renovate old Porsches of their own.  Thompson plans to continue his many hobbies, especially completing the second renovation of the Porsche he drove at LSU in the 1970’s.