S. Donald Stookey is no household name, but his best-known invention truly is: CorningWare, the durable, heat-resistant ceramic glass used since the 1950s to make millions upon millions of baked lasagnas, tuna casseroles and other potluck-dinner dishes.
The scientist, who died Tuesday at 99, created a type of glass so strong that the military used it in guided missile nose cones. His space-age material found a home in most American kitchens in the form of white dishes decorated with small blue flowers.
Stanley Donald Stookey died at an assisted living center in Rochester, N.Y., said his son Donald Stookey. He said his father broke a hip in a fall a few months ago and underwent surgery, but his health deteriorated.
“He was one of the great glass scientists in the history of the world,” said Steve Feller, a physics professor at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Stookey earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry and mathematics and remained active in alumni activities. “Virtually everyone has had CorningWare at some point in time, and there were all sorts of spinoff applications from his fantastic work.”
CorningWare was celebrated for its versatility. It was strong enough to withstand minor kitchen mishaps, and it gave home cooks the ability to bake and serve food in the same dish. The dishes could go straight from the oven to the dinner table and then into the refrigerator or freezer.
Stookey joined Corning Glass Works in New York in 1940, the same year he graduated with a doctorate in physical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He immersed himself in research, studying the complex chemistry of oxidation and its effects on glass, according to a company biography.
In 1952, he placed a plate of glass into an oven to heat it, but the oven malfunctioned. Instead of heating to about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, the oven shot up to more than 1,600 degrees. Stookey expected to find a molten mess. Instead, he found an opaque, milky-white plate. As he was removing it from the oven, his tongs slipped, and the plate fell to the floor. But instead of shattering, it bounced.
He had discovered glass ceramics, which Corning patented as Pyroceram. By the end of the 1950s, the work led to CorningWare, one of the company’s most successful product lines.
“He was fearless — the unknown never daunted him,” said David Morse, Corning’s chief technology officer. “He was an unassuming and quiet but tough person,” whose numerous inventions generated big business for the company. “Don was recognized throughout the glass technology community as a world-class scientist.”
CorningWare is still sold today, although it is now marketed by World Kitchen LLC, a Rosemont, Ill.-based company formed after Corning Inc. spun off its consumer-products division in 1998.
Stookey earned 60 U.S. patents. His other innovations included developing photosensitive glass that helped lead to color television picture tubes.
He received the National Medal of Technology from President Ronald Reagan in 1987.
In 2010, at age 94, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Stookey was born in Hay Springs, Neb., on May 23, 1915. His family moved from Nebraska to Cedar Rapids when he was 6. He graduated from Coe College in 1936 before earning a master’s degree in chemistry from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., followed by the MIT doctorate.