Remembering Professor Emeritus A.J. Welch

January 03, 2022

Ashley James (A.J.) Welch, a leading biophotonics researcher and one of the founding faculty members of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UT, died at the age of 88 on January 1, 2022. Welch leaves a legacy of fundamental research and influence that carry on in the students he mentored and colleagues with whom he worked. Known for his patience, kindness, and ability to teach, the UT community mourns his loss.

Welch joined UT Austin as an assistant professor in 1964 in the Department of Electrical Engineering, and began teaching introductory courses for graduate and undergraduate students in biomedical engineering.

In 1968, he began teaching with what was at that time known as the Biomedical Engineering Program. His research focused on what happens to tissue when exposed to lasers, and he wrote a book explaining the fundamentals of laser tissue interaction. His research in this area first focused on laser safety, specifically as part of a project sponsored by the U.S. Air Force to investigate laser flash blindness in pilots and safe levels of laser exposure to the eye. Welch’s work later evolved into how lasers could be used in medical applications and for diagnosing disease.

Welch was born in 1933 in Fort Worth, Texas and raise by a single mother who was one of the first women to work as a physical therapist in the state. He earned his electrical engineering degree from Texas Tech University, where he also met his wife, Pat Combs.

A.J. Welch in the 1970s
A.J. Welch served on UT Austin's Biomedical Engineering Committee in the late 60s and early 70s, which allowed graduate students to earn degrees in that field, and provided a foundation for a fully fledged academic department in biomedical engineering in 2001.

He later earned his M.S. in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University, while working as an engineer for General Dynamics in Fort Worth, and then sought a PhD in electrical engineering from Rice University to fulfill his dream of teaching and conducting research.

Welch was a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineers and a recipient of numerous honors, including the Cockrell School's Billy & Claude R. Hocott Distinguished Centennial Engineering Research Award. He supervised nearly 50 PhD and 100 master’s degree students during his time at UT and left a remarkable impression on those he mentored.

"A.J. Welch took my lifelong fascination with lasers and inspired me to make a difference in human health through biomedical optics," says UT alum and University of Arizona Professor of Biomedical Engineering Jennifer Barton. "He instilled persistence, excellence, and an attitude of compassion in all his trainees. I am honored to have learned from him."

Two former students, Drs. Duco Jansen and Sohi Rastegar, honored him with a special section guest editorial in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Biomedical Optics.

Welch is survived by his children, who all received STEM degrees from UT Austin, and his seven granddaughters.

In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts can be made in support of the A.J. and Pat Welch Endowed Graduate Fellowship.