Dr. Harry Sewell, physicist, inventor

Harry Sewell, Ph.D, did his best to ignore the symptoms of his cancer and the side effects of chemotherapy for more than two years because he had so much to do — so many projects, trips to take and new recipes to try. Only during his last months did he concede to fatigue, but he still talked of the seeds he would plant in the spring.

Born on March 7, 1946, in Darlington, Northern England, Harry showed an early interest in science and engineering with projects that were decidedly under-appreciated by his family: at age 9, he built a fully operational funicular railway up the stairs to the second floor, and he once burnt off his eyebrows in one of his many experiments to investigate chemical reactions.

Harry attended Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London, where he earned his B.Sc in Theoretical Physics—a discipline that shaped his way of seeing the world for the rest of his life. He stayed at Imperial College to pursue a doctorate in Electrical Engineering and then joined Phillips Research Labs (Surrey, England), where he was responsible for the development of electron-beam lithography.

In 1968, Harry married Lynne; their son was born in 1971 and their daughter in 1973. Having been born in the year after WWII ended and having come of age during the Cold War, Harry and Lynne, had agreed, when they were students, that the West Coast of Canada was the only safe place to raise a family. As the first step in this plan, in 1979, Harry joined Bell Northern Research in Ottawa, but their stay there was brief: in 1982, Harry was recruited by the Perkin Elmer Corp. in Wilton, CT, to manage Lithographic Applications, and the family moved to Ridgefield.

Harry stayed with the Microlithography Division when it was sold, first to Silicon Valley Group (SVG) and then to ASML (Netherlands). Harry always threw himself into his work with an enthusiasm that others sometimes found daunting. Louis Markoya worked with Harry for more than 20 years. He writes: “We weathered two company-ownership changes and dramatically changing roles and responsibilities. Working with Harry often meant late nights, working through the holidays and processing ever more experimental data—even at two or three in the morning. He earned himself the title of ‘One-more-data-point Harry.’ When the complex problems of wafer-chip processing looked their worst, Harry was always called in to find the fixes. On occasion, especially during the SVG days, he actually saved the company from disaster. Recognized throughout the semiconductor industry, Harry worked with and was recognized by all the top names. His advice was always valued. Harry was missed as soon as he retired, and we will miss him even more now.”

During his career, Harry was awarded at least 57 patents and gave innumerable papers at international conferences. In 2014, he was awarded Senior Member status in SPIE (Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers) for his achievements in optical lithography. Diane Markoya worked with Harry from the ‘90s onward and reflects: “Harry was a massive intellect and a first-class scientist. His influence on semiconductor photo-lithography will be felt for a long time. In 2014, a technological-advancement proposal for machines produced by his former employer was being reviewed. This ‘new’ idea sounded oddly familiar. I checked my files—the old-fashioned paper ones. Harry published a paper on this very subject in the 1990s, almost 20 years earlier.”

Harry took surprisingly well to retirement in 2009. Having bought land on Rainbow Lake in 1998, by 2008, he and his wife had realized their dream of building a lakeside home to grow old in. Harry was a Board member of the Ridgefield Lakes Association and was particularly involved with dam maintenance and water quality. In 2011, Harry began to work with the Conservation Commission (CC) to build a footbridge across the stream from Lake Windwing because the previous one had collapsed. It was initially to be an Eagle Scout project with Harry’s guidance, but work was delayed until October, 2013, by which time the Scout was in college. Harry worked with the CC on siting; he designed a new, much improved structure, cut and painted the wood and led a team of 20 or so community volunteers to build the fine footbridge that now stands just off Mountain Road and allows access to the walking trails. Although he was on chemotherapy, Harry loved working with others on this project and poured all his available strength into it.

Harry was a lifelong vegetable gardener; he grew plants from seeds and encouraged others in the Rainbow Lake community to start their own gardens by giving them seedlings when the plants could safely be planted outdoors. A true scientist, Harry kept detailed records of seed type and yield and the quality of the eventual product. He also grew more vegetables than two people could possibly eat and loved giving them away. Neighbor Chris Belden writes: “Truly one of a kind. We will miss his dry wit, his uncompromising intelligence and his homegrown vegetables. The end of an era here on the lake.” Harry also built RC airplanes and was a member of the Westchester Radio Aeromodelers Club. He found it difficult to discard anything, so his workshop also houses all the broken planes he crashed and every bent nail and piece of wood he thought would “come in handy one day.” He loved opera, building walls, carpentry, baking and cooking for friends, and there seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do. More than anything, he loved traveling with Lynne, his wife of 47 years, and living on the lake with her.

In the early ‘70s, Harry suffered from the first symptoms of the rare genetic condition that ultimately led to his death—peacefully and at home—on January 26, 2015: multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN 1), which affects the pancreas and the pituitary and parathyroid glands. It was discovered that he had neuroendocrine tumors (insulinomas) on his pancreas; they produced so much excess insulin that only major surgery could save his life. Half of his pancreas was removed and his survival was by no means certain, but his strong constitution and indomitable spirit pulled him through. These characteristics also helped him ignore, as far as he could, his illness and the ill-effects of his treatment.

Dr. Sewell was predeceased by his son, Andrew, in 2013. He leaves his wife, Lynne, his daughter, Joanne (of Boston) and his brother, Robert, and a niece and nephew (of Toronto, Canada). He will be buried in Ridgebury Cemetery alongside his son at a time that has yet to be determined. His family thanks Dr. Michael Cohenuram and his nurse, Kim, of the Praxair Cancer Center, Danbury Hospital, and Sara Fry, a Hospice nurse with Masonicare, for their kindness and expertise. Harry loved Yosemite National Park, and donations in his memory may be made at yosemiteconservancy.com.

—by Lynne Sewell