Paying Tribute to Former IEEE President Richard Gowen

His research for NASA looked at the effects space had on astronauts

4 min read

Richard Gowen, 1984 IEEE president, died on 12 November at the age of 86.

An active volunteer who held many high-level positions throughout the organization, Gowen was president of the IEEE Foundation from 2005 to 2011 and two years later was appointed as president emeritus of the IEEE Foundation. He was also past chair of the IEEE History Committee.

“I, along with the IEEE staff and Board of Directors are deeply saddened by this loss,” says Susan K. (Kathy) Land, 2021 IEEE president and CEO. “Dick served not only as IEEE president but was a dedicated advocate of the IEEE Foundation and a strong champion of the IEEE History Center. I know I speak for both the members of IEEE and supporters of the IEEE Foundation in extending our sincere sympathies to his family and colleagues.”

Photo of a man in a dark jacket and red tie. IEEE Foundation

At the time of death, he was president and CEO of Dakota Power, a company in Rapid City, S.D., that develops lightweight electric drive systems for military and civilian use.


Gowen was born in New Brunswick, N.J., and received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1957 from Rutgers University there. While at Rutgers, he participated in the school’s ROTC.

After graduating, he joined RCA Laboratories in Princeton, N.J., as a researcher but was called to active duty by the U.S. Air Force. He was a communications electronics officer at Yaak Air Force Station, in Montana. While there, he applied to join the electrical engineering faculty at the Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was accepted, and the academy sponsored his postgraduate studies at Iowa State University, in Ames. He earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1959 and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering in 1962.

For his doctoral research, he developed an engineering model of the cardiovascular system. His project led to the development of a device worn on a person’s finger that measures blood pressure during physical exercise. He was granted his first U.S. patent for the technology.


Gowen began his academic career in 1962 as an electrical engineering professor at the Air Force Academy. He was selected in 1966 to be an astronaut in NASA‘s Apollo 1 program but withdrew after suffering a back injury that left him unable to walk.

After undergoing an operation that restored his ability to walk, he returned to the academy. In addition to teaching, he led a research team to develop technology that could help NASA study the effects of weightlessness on astronauts’ cardiovascular systems. The research was being conducted at a new lab NASA and the Air Force built at the academy.

Gowen and his team worked with the astronauts of the Apollo and Skylab missions to virtually test and evaluate physiological changes that might have occurred during their long space missions. His research led to the development of the lower body negative pressure device, which can vary the transfer of fluids from the upper body to the lower body. It gave the research team “the ability to evaluate the movement of fluids on the cardiovascular system,” Gowen wrote in an article about the research on the Engineering Technology and History Wiki.

The device is now on display in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian National Space and Air Museum.

Gowen served as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense while at the academy. He retired in 1977 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He joined the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, in Rapid City, in 1977 as vice president and dean of engineering. He left seven years later to serve as president of Dakota State College, now Dakota State University, in Madison, S.D.

In 1987 he returned to South Dakota Mines as its president. Under his leadership, new engineering programs were created and graduate research projects were expanded. He also increased the number of projects that were conducted in collaboration with NASA and the U.S. military.

After he retired from the school in 2003 he was appointed as a member of the South Dakota Department of Education. In that role, he was active in encouraging more Native Americans to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

After retiring, he led the conversion of the Homestake gold mine, in Lead, S.D., into a scientific laboratory in 2003 at the request of the U.S. National Science Foundation. The Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory opened in 2009.

Gowen was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2012 for his work in expanding academic research and STEM education.

He helped found Dakota Power in 2007.


Gowen joined IEEE in 1956 to give back to the engineering profession, gain leadership skills, and serve on boards and committees, according to the Wiki article.

He was active in the IEEE Denver Section and was a founding member of the IEEE Pikes Peak Section, in Colorado Springs. He was the 1976 Region 5 director and a member of several boards including the IEEE Regional Activities board (now the IEEE Member and Geographic Activities board), the IEEE Standards Association Standards Board, and the IEEE Technical Activities board.

“Over several decades, Dick made enormous contributions to IEEE, the IEEE Foundation, and the engineering profession,” says IEEE Life Fellow Lyle Feisel, director emeritus of the IEEE Foundation. “He was a risk-taker who saw solutions where others saw only problems. Above all, he had enthusiasm, often belied by his low-key approach.”

Gowen was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 1981 in recognition of his contributions to space research and education. He played a major role in the merger of IEEE and Eta Kappa Nu to form the IEEE-Eta Kappa Nu honor society. Gowen was elevated in 2002 to eminent member of IEEE-HKN.

He and his wife, Nancy, were avid supporters of the IEEE Foundation and IEEE History Center. Last year, thanks to their generous donation, the History Center was able to complete its GPS collection on its Engineering and Technology History Wiki. Now oral histories from all four GPS fathers—Brad Parkinson, James Spilker, Richard Schwartz, and Hugo Fruehauf—are available online.

The Gowens were also members of the IEEE Heritage Circle and the IEEE Goldsmith Legacy League. The Heritage Circle acknowledges members who have pledged more than US $10,000 to support IEEE programs. Legacy League members have pledged money to the IEEE Foundation through a bequest in their will, trust, life insurance policy, or retirement plan.

“Dick’s contributions to IEEE and the IEEE Foundation were far-reaching, impactful, and impossible to measure,” Karen Galuchie, IEEE Foundation executive director, says. “He was known as a servant leader and tirelessly dedicated his time, talent, and treasure to making IEEE stronger and more productive. His impression on IEEE will last forever.”

Gifts can be made in Gowen’s memory to a variety of IEEE’s philanthropic programs that were important to him such as the IEEE Foundation Fund, the IEEE History Center, and IEEE-HKN. The Gowen family will be notified of your donation unless you make your gift anonymously, according to Galuchie.

To share your condolences or memories of Richard Gowen, please use the commenting form below.

The Conversation (1)
Cedric Walker
Cedric Walker14 Dec, 2021

I had the great privilege of working with Dick to create and administer a certification for clinical engineering in the late 1970s. Even though he was a Vice President and Dean, and I was just a newly minted Assistant Professor, he was helpful and collegial and respectful of my ideas. His contributions to our profession spanned many technical areas, but most of all he will be remembered as a thoughtful and effective leader.