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Felix M. H. Villars

Professor Emeritus Felix M. H. Villars died of cancer Saturday at the age of 81.

Villars was a member of the MIT faculty for 41 years, playing a key role in developing the Harvard-MIT Division of Health, Sciences and Technology (HST) after starting his career in theoretical physics. He retired in 1991.

He worked with Nobel Laureate Wolfgang Pauli in the early years of quantum electrodynamics, developing the method known as “Pauli-Villars regularization,” which was widely influential and is familiar to all students of field theory. Villars also worked extensively in nuclear physics, and he was the first to recognize that meson exchanges generating the nuclear force also contribute to electromagnetic properties of nuclei. Villars also developed the theory governing the collective rotations of deformed nuclei such as uranium.

Villars helped bring analytical methods to medicine

Villars’ contributions are not limited to theoretical physics. He used his knowledge of physics and engineering to push the boundaries of medical science. Later in his career, Villars studied biology and then applied rigorous mathematical analysis to the functioning of biological systems. This led to new insights in biology and physiology, and teaching of these new methods. He taught Quantitative Physiology and Respiratory Pathophysiology at HST as classes for medical students seeking quantitative insight into organ physiology.

Recently, more than a decade after his retirement, Villars helped teach a popular graduate course in biological physics and worked on a graduate level text.

Research began in Switzerland

Born in Biel, Switzerland on Jan. 6, 1921, Villars graduated in physics and mathematics from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in 1945. During World War II, he served as a meteorologist in the Swiss army before returning to the Swiss Federal Institute to earn his doctorate in 1946.

In 1949, he moved to the United States, where he was a visiting member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University for a year before coming to MIT for the remainder of his career.

Villars is survived by his wife Jacqueline and four children, Fred of Philadelphia, Cecile of Belmont, Mass., Monique of Delft, the Netherlands, and Philip of Northboro, Mass.; a brother and sister, Hans and Mireille of Biel, Switzerland; and three grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at MIT in the fall, and a memorial fellowship fund will be established in his honor.