Perry L. McCarty, the acclaimed environmental engineering innovator who revolutionized wastewater treatment and pollution cleanup with discoveries that launched the field of environmental biotechnology, has died. He was 91.
McCarty, NAE, Dist.M.ASCE, is acclaimed for his seminal discovery, identifying the anaerobic bacteria that could break down hazardous waste and minimize groundwater contamination in an energy-efficient way. Indeed, he would later say “My whole life has been anaerobic processes.”
His designs of microbial bioreactors for pollution control and safe drinking water are used worldwide, and his revolutionary treatments using bacteria that thrive without oxygen helped guide new strategies for cleaning up industrial contamination and minimizing groundwater pollution. The largest example of a McCarty-inspired anaerobic treatment plant is now being piloted in Redwood City, California.
Among his noted remediation efforts, McCarty and colleague David Hill were among the first to study anaerobic degradation of the now-banned pesticide DDT.
McCarty was a life member of ASCE, who honored his earlier efforts with the Huber Research Award and later successes with the Freese Lecture and Croes Medal.
As a curious and resourceful boy, he built crystal radios and various Rube Goldberg–inspired contraptions around his home. McCarty was a gifted student, a leader in high school, and a stand-out track runner and football player. He began at Wayne State University in Detroit planning to study physics. But his love of both science and the outdoors convinced him that civil engineering was a better fit.
At his wife Martha’s encouragement, he applied to and was accepted for graduate study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But before he could attend, he was drafted into the U.S. Army’s counter-intelligence corps. During the lean times of World War II, he worked at his father’s used car lot, tending to fenders and tire-treads.
He taught full-time while earning his M.S. in 1957 and his Sc.D. in 1959, both in sanitary engineering, as it was known at the time. He joined Stanford University in 1962 as an associate professor to develop its environmental engineering and science programs.
He flourished at Stanford, where he welcomed a newfound freedom to work cross-departmentally with experts in other fields of study, such as hydrology and fluid dynamics. McCarty’s program was soon ranked number one in the United States and its work sparked interest beyond academia – in industry and in government. He became a full professor in 1967.
McCarty published more than 350 peer-reviewed papers and co-authored two foundational environmental engineering textbooks that have been widely translated and used globally. He was named chair of Stanford’s civil engineering department in 1980 and in 1989, helped establish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Western Region Hazardous Substance Research Center. After retiring in 1999, he continued collaborating with international universities and industries.
McCarty won the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 1992, the Clarke Prize from the National Water Research Institute in 1997, and the Stockholm Water Prize in 2007 – the three premier awards in the environmental field.
He was a Silas H. Palmer Professor of Civil Engineering (emeritus), was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and, in 2016, was named a Stanford Engineering Hero.
Following his formal retirement from Stanford, in 2009 he began a productive five-year collaboration with Inha University in South Korea with a former graduate student, teaching and pursuing pilot studies of innovative bioreactor technology.
“Our faculty have been deeply and positively impacted by Perry as a colleague, teacher, mentor, and friend,” said Sarah Billington, professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering and the UPS Foundation Professor at Stanford. “He was a giant in so many ways.”
In his spare time, he and Martha enjoyed time at Monterey Bay and camping, hiking, and backpacking, especially at Yosemite, and he had a great passion for birding and wildlife viewing. They shared a love of classical music and opera.
Stanford will be holding a memorial tribute on Tuesday, Oct. 24. Learn more.