Daniel Alexander Okun
Daniel Alexander Okun died Monday, December 10, in Chapel Hill, NC, of complications associated with leukemia. He was Kenan Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering and had served the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for over 50 years. Professor Okun was widely recognized for the engineering insight and passion he brought to protection of the world’s water resources, especially those dedicated to human consumption. His early research on the measurement of dissolved oxygen in water revolutionized this technique for generations of engineers and scientists in various fields. He also developed the single most innovative process for the treatment of industrial wastes in the second half of the 20th century, namely the application of pure oxygen. Although these scientific innovations are significant, they are only examples of his profound influence on scientific advancement in the field of environmental sciences and engineering. Much of this influence resulted from his achievements as an educator and consultant.
He received undergraduate engineering training at Cooper Union and, after military service during WWII, obtained a Doctor of Science degree from Harvard University under the supervision of Gordon Fair, the preeminent Sanitary Engineer of his day. Dr. Okun joined the UNC faculty in 1952 and served as Head of the Department from 1955 to 1973. In this period, he transformed the Department’s traditional sanitary engineering program into a prestigious Environmental Science and Engineering regimen, adding studies in air pollution control, industrial and radiological hygiene, aquatic and atmospheric science and environmental management and policy. Today, the department’s program is regarded as one of the best of its kind in the world. Over the years, hundreds of its graduates, including hundreds from Third World countries, have advanced to critical field research and policy-making positions across the globe, where they are furthering scientific knowledge even as they devise and implement solutions to serious environmental problems.
Dr. Okun served as Chair of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill during the tumultuous years of 1970-73.
His service to the university was honored by receipt of the Thomas Jefferson Award, given to honor a UNC faculty member who “through personal influence and performance of duty in teaching, writing and scholarship has best exemplified the ideals and objective of Thomas Jefferson.” He was the first engineer in North Carolina to be elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering and is one of very few engineers elected to the Institute of Medicine. In August of 1999, Engineering News Record included Dr. Okun in a group of 125 engineers who “singularly and collectively helped shape this nation and the world” over the last 125 years. In 1999, the department honored him with the establishment of the Daniel A. Okun Professorship with donations from former students, colleagues and friends.
Dr. Okun was also a major contributor to the development of environmental sciences and engineering courses and programs for major universities in the Netherlands, England, China, Peru, Guatemala, Thailand, Finland, France, and Singapore, as well as for such American universities as the University of Michigan, Duke, Vanderbilt, Pittsburgh, Clarkson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the University of Georgia. He developed training programs for World Bank engineers, UNESCO, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Public Health Service, and the Asian Institute of Technology, and has served on the Fulbright Commission’s Council for the International Exchange of Scholars. Over his 50 year career, Dr. Okun worked on water resource and water supply issues in 90 countries.
A memorial service will be held on Friday, December 21st, at 2 pm in the auditorium of Carol Woods Retirement Center in Chapel Hill. He is survived by his wife, Beth, two children, Michael and Tema, grandchildren Will and Joedan, and brother Milton Okun of Los Angeles. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations may be made in his memory to the Dan Okun Scholarship Fund in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Checks should be made to the Public Health Foundation and should indicate the name of the scholarship for which it is intended.
The address is UNC School of Public Health, Campus Box 7407, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7407.