Internationally known researcher in cotton fibers Kenneth L. Hertel was born in Van Wert, Ohio. In 1920 Hertel received a bachelor's degree in engineering from Ohio State University and completed his Ph.D. in physics in 1926 at University of Chicago. He joined the faculty of the University of Tennessee in the fall of 1926 as an assistant professor of physics. Hertel served as chairman of the UT physics department from 1935 to 1956. From 1938 to 1968 he was Director of the UT Fiber Research Laboratory, a regional laboratory supported by the UT Agricultural Experiment Station and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hertel was one of seven founding members of the Fiber Society and served as president in 1949. He was vice-president of the American Society for Testing Materials in 1956-57.
In 1934 Hertel became a founder of the University of Tennessee Research Corporation, an independent nonprofit organization whose primary goal is the promotion of research at the various UT campuses; he served as president of the corporation from 1954 to 1969. The corporation covers legal and marketing expenses associated with the commercialization of patented processes developed by UT faculty members working in UT laboratories. The corporation shares the profits with the university's faculty inventors. Hertel invented several instruments for the measurement of cotton fibers, including the Fibrograph and the Arealometer, which, with improvements and modifications, remain in use today. To honor his work with UTRC, the corporation sponsors “Hertel Events,” academic events designed to promote and increase public awareness of academic research.
As department head, Hertel promoted a closer association between UT and Oak Ridge. The results of his efforts and those of like-minded scientists included the establishment of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies (now Oak Ridge Associated Universities) and the creation of a Ph.D. program in physics.
Hertel retired from the University of Tennessee in 1968 after forty-two years of service. He continued to consult on a number of projects. In 1970 the Committee on Textile Materials of the American Society for Testing and Materials awarded Hertel the Smith Award for outstanding achievement in the science of textile fiber utilization.
Hertel married the former Winifred Hayler. They were the parents of two sons, Robert and Gordon. Hertel died in Knoxville in 1976.