“Professor Tanaka’s ... work on gels exemplifies the spirit of innovation and the interaction between fundamental scientific curiosity and practical applications that is so important at MIT,”said President Charles M. Vest.
Tanaka’s research focused on gels made from organic polymers, which were designed to to expand, contract, or absorb other molecules in response to tiny chemical or physical changes in the environment.
Applications have included gels that take up heavy metals from polluted water, allowing the metal to be collected and reused. Other suggested applications include artificial muscle tissue and high-sensitivity flexible valves.
Tanaka’s work also shed light on the physical behavior of biologically-important polymers, such and DNA and proteins. He was currently working on constructing a gel with an ligand binding site like those found in proteins.
Tanaka was also a respected teacher, who enjoyed teaching at all levels, including freshman physics classes.
“Toyo was a great physicist and a superb teacher,” said Professor of Physics Marc A. Kastner, head of the department. “His demonstrations of the miraculous properties of gels were spellbinding and showed young and old that even commonplace materials can behave in wondrous ways.”
Tanaka was born in Nagaoka, Japan in 1946. He earned the S.B., S.M., and Sc.D. in physics from the University of Tokyo in 1968, 1970, and 1973, respectively. After coming to MIT as a post-doctoral researcher in 1973,he became a faculty member in 1975. At the time of his death, he was the first Otto and Jane Morningstar professor of science and a principal researcher in the Center for Materials Science and Engineering.
Tanaka’s many awards include the Inoue Prize in 1994, which is awarded to a scientist under age 50 for outstanding achievements in basic sciences, and the Award of the Polymer Society of Japan in 1986.
In 1996, he received an award for newly-emerging technologies from Discover magazine. In 1992, he became a fellow on the American Physical Society.
In 1992, he co-founded GelMed Inc. in Bedford, Mass, which explores the practical and commercial applications of his gels.
Tanaka is survived by his wife Tomoko, his parents, a son who is an MIT graduate student in physics, a daughter, and a sister.