Gertrude Neumark Rothschild, Professor Who Won Patent Fights, Dies at 83

Margaret Kelly, Columbia U.

Processes developed by Gertrude Neumark Rothschild improved many consumer devices.
January 09, 2011

LED screens for televisions and mobile phones are a part of everyday life for many Americans, yet few people know that the work of Gertrude Neumark Rothschild made such technology possible. For Ms. Rothschild, taking on large electronics companies to get that recognition was a question of fairness.

Ms. Rothschild, a professor emerita of materials science and engineering at Columbia University, died of heart failure in Rye, N.Y., in November at the age of 83. Her research into light-emitting and laser diodes, or LED's, was responsible for significant advances in consumer and industrial products. When companies failed to credit her work, she fought successful legal battles for recognition.

Friends and co-workers say Ms. Rothschild's patent fight represented an important ideal that was most likely shaped by the barriers she faced throughout her career. Ms. Rothschild was one of only a handful of women in a field dominated by men, and her ideas often failed to get the acknowledgment they deserved, friends say.

Her patent fight, these friends say, was about giving credit where credit was due and proving that women can do science of the same caliber as men can.

"People thought that, because she was a woman, they could just walk all over her," says I. Cevdet Noyan, a Columbia professor who worked with Ms. Rothschild on several projects. "And she would say, 'They're being unfair, and I'm not going to let them get away with that.'"

At only about 5 feet tall, Ms. Rothschild could have easily been ignored. But friends and co-workers say she had a brilliant understanding of physics and an unrelenting energy that let her dominate conversations, especially when it came to science.

She was always respectful, says Igor L. Kuskovsky, of the Queens College of the City University of New York, who worked with Ms. Rothschild as a graduate student, a postgraduate, and, most recently, a professor. But he adds that she was an exacting scientist who took a long time and had to gather significant evidence to be convinced of an idea. He says she demanded rigorous thinking of the people with whom she worked.

"She was one of the strongest personalities I've ever met," he says.

Born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1927, Ms. Rothschild immigrated with her family to America in 1935 to flee the Nazi government.

Despite studying in a field where, as a woman, she was in the minority, Ms. Rothschild moved quickly through her formal education. She earned a bachelor's degree from Barnard College in 1948, and a master's degree in chemistry from Radcliffe College one year later. Two years later, she earned a doctorate in chemistry from Columbia University.

She went to work as a research physicist in laboratories at Sylvania and Philips before returning to Columbia as an adjunct faculty member in 1982. She became a full professor in 1985.

Ms. Rothschild began studying the properties of semiconductors in the 1980s. Her work at Columbia centered on developing diodes that could use the upper range of the visible spectrum to produce a more-efficient and reliable light, a breakthrough with wide applications.

Companies across the globe incorporated the technology into numerous household electronic devices like televisions and CD players.

In 2005, Ms. Rothschild filed lawsuits against several lighting companies, accusing them of violating two of her semiconductor patents. While the litigation initially appeared to be a David-vs.-Goliath matchup, almost all of the companies settled, providing Ms. Rothschild with money to finance a broader defense of her work.

In 2008 she filed complaints with the U.S. International Trade Commission against some large corporations, including Sony and Nokia, for violating a 1993 patent. The commission agreed to hear the case, and Ms. Rothschild brought complaints against even more companies. Many of those companies settled.

By November 2009, she had secured about $27-million in settlements and licensing agreements from more than 40 companies, Albert Jacobs Jr., one of her lawyers at the time, told the newsletter Law360.

But the fight was never about the money, friends say. Fairness was important to Ms. Rothschild, and even outside the patent litigation, she would stand up for individuals—especially female scientists—she thought were being discriminated against.

"In this setting, someone has to be judged solely on their knowledge," Mr. Noyan says. "She really believed that."

The fight is not over, either. Ms. Rothschild's lawyer and friend, Diana D. Parker, says that once she is made the executor of Ms. Rothschild's estate, she will continue with the unfinished patent litigation.