Ray Dolby, 1933-2013

Ray Dolby, the pioneer of surround-sound and noise reduction technology in modern entertainment and a great friend of UCSF, passed away at his home in San Francisco on September 12, 2013. He was 80 years old.

Among many contributions to UCSF, Ray and his wife Dagmar were a key philanthropic force behind the construction of the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building. Since its opening in 2011, the building they made possible has housed one of the largest and most comprehensive stem cell research programs in the United States. 

“We are greatly saddened by the death of Ray Dolby, and are honored that his legacy will live on in our building and our work here at UCSF,” says Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann.

Founder of Dolby Laboratories, Inc., Dr. Dolby changed the way people listen to music and movies. His name is now internationally synonymous with the highest quality of sound. Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1933, he was fascinated from a young age by music and technology. As a teenager, he was a student projectionist at Sequoia High School in Redwood City and took a part time job at Ampex Corporation, a pioneer of audio recorders. He continued his employment there after graduating from high school, working on audio and instrumentation projects that included designing the electronics for a videotape recording system. In 1953, he was drafted into the army, where he taught electronics.

After completing his military service, he returned to the Bay Area, graduating from Stanford University in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Upon receiving a Marshall Scholarship and a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship, he left for Cambridge University in England. There, he earned a PhD in physics in 1961, met his wife Dagmar, and was a consultant to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. In 1963, Ray accepted a two-year appointment as a United Nations advisor in India. Then, in 1965, he returned to London, England and founded Dolby Laboratories. From his office in the corner of a London dressmaking factory, he and his four-person team fine-tuned their technology to eliminate the hiss that degraded the quality of professional audio recordings. He moved to San Francisco in 1976, where his growing company established its headquarters, laboratories, and manufacturing facilities. Over the decades, Dolby Laboratories has brought a cleaner, crisper sound to theaters, living rooms, and mobile entertainment around the globe.

Dr. Dolby held more than 50 US patents and wrote papers on videotape recording, long wavelength X-ray analysis, and noise reduction. Dr. Dolby’s pioneering work in noise reduction and surround sound earned extensive recognition worldwide. Among other honors, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology in 1997 and Queen Elizabeth II presented him with the Order of Officer of the British Empire in 1987. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of science by Cambridge University and an honorary doctorate by University of York.

Dr. Dolby was a Fellow and President of the Audio Engineering Society and a recipient of its Silver and Gold Medal Awards, and a Fellow of the British Kinematograph Sound and Television Society. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers awarded him the Edison Medal in 2010 “for leadership and pioneering applications in audio recording and playback equipment for both professional and consumer electronics.” He was an Honorary Member of The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, which also awarded him its Samuel L. Warner Memorial Award, Alexander M. Poniatoff Gold Medal, and Progress Medal. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented him with an Oscar and a Scientific and Engineering Award. He earned several Emmys from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, including for his invention of the Ampex video tape recorder and his work for Dolby Laboratories, and a Grammy from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

As philanthropists, Dr. Dolby and his wife Dagmar were extraordinarily generous to numerous causes and organizations. Among other gifts, they gave $5 million in 2005 to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, helping the fledgling agency establish its stem cell research program. The following year, they made the first of two landmark investments in UCSF’s campaign to build a state-of-the-art stem cell facility—contributions that ultimately totaled $36 million. The facility they helped build has enabled UCSF to recruit and retain top scientists, bringing under one roof hundreds of the foremost investigators in many areas of human and animal embryonic and adult stem cell and related early-cell studies. In turn, these scientists are making discoveries that may lead to treatments for traumatic and degenerative disorders and provide important insights into a wide range of diseases and conditions.

“Throughout his career, Dr. Dolby was committed to innovation and fostering environments where people could do great things,” says Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research. “The investment in UCSF reflected that commitment, creating a space that will encourage the cross-pollination of ideas between world-class scientists for years to come.”

It is difficult to overstate the profound impact of the Dolbys’ partnership on stem cell research at UCSF and beyond. Among the groundbreaking discoveries made by investigators in the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building are: the identification of a new way to manipulate the immune system that may keep it from attacking the body’s own molecules in autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis; the first success in very rapidly purifying one type of embryonic stem cell from a mix of many different types of embryonic stem cells in the culture dish; a novel approach to treating brain diseases and injuries, using a particular type of embryonic stem cell to manipulate the brain’s neural circuitry; why blood stem cells are susceptible to developing the genetic mutations that can lead to adult leukemia; and the key role of a protein to direct the development of tissues, an understanding that may one day help scientists replace damaged organs in the human body. 

Dr. Dolby is survived by his wife, Dagmar, his sons, Tom and David, their spouses, Andrew and Natasha, and four grandchildren.

UCSF remains deeply grateful for Ray and Dagmar Dolby’s dedication to advancing the field of stem cell research and ultimately improving the health of patients around the globe.