Robert L. Burwell, Jr., Ipatieff Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Northwestern University, will always be remembered by his many friends, colleagues, and students as a learned gentleman of high moral standard, a dedicated educator, and a thorough and brilliant researcher in heterogeneous catalysis. He was a leading figure in guiding the development of the catalysis community in the U.S. and the world. His many contributions to the community included serving on the governing body of the (North American) Catalysis Society from 1964 to 1977 as Director, Vice President, and in 1973–77, President. From 1955–84, he served on the Board of Director, as U.S Representative to the Congress, Vice President, and President (1980–84) of the International Congress on Catalysis. He chaired the Gordon Research Conference on Catalysis in 1957, and was Associate Editor and a member of the Editorial Board of Journal of Catalysis.
Robert Burwell received his Ph.D. in 1936 from Princeton University under the guidance of Sir Hugh Taylor. After three years as a Chemistry Instructor at Trinity College, in 1939 he joined the Chemistry Department at Northwestern University. Except for the World War II period from 1942 until 1945, when, having enlisted, he worked at the Naval Research Laboratory, Dr. Burwell served at Northwestern until he retired in 1980. As Ipatieff Professor Emeritus, he continued his research and intellectual activities for another decade after retirement. During his career he published over 170 original research articles, served on National Research Council Committees, IUPAC Committees, the Petroleum Research Fund Advisory Board, the National Science Foundation Chemistry Advisory Board, and others, as well as Chairing the Chemistry Department at Northwestern University. In 1994, he moved to Virginia with Elise, his wife of over sixty years.
Professor Burwell was among the first scientists who understood the critical connection between general chemistry and catalysis. He introduced and popularized concepts that are now familiar to and even commonplace within the entire catalysis community. His research themes centered around elucidation of the reaction mechanisms, nature of surface intermediates, and characterization of active sites of solid catalysts. He was well known for the use of H‑D exchange for such studies. Using this technique, he identified the importance of 1,2‑diadsorbed alkane on noble metal surfaces in the exchange and the hydrogenation reaction, and the irreversibility in the adsorption of alkene during hydrogenation. He established the “rollover” mechanism for cyclic hydrocarbons in these reactions, and the term “surface organometallic zoo”. He carefully documented the importance of surface coordination unsaturation in catalysis by metal oxides, and developed new catalysts of unusual activities by deposition of organometallic complexes on alumina and silica, and by modifying silica surface.
His many scientific contributions and their industrial applications were recognized in his day, as evidenced by the many awards and honors he received. They included the ACS Kendall Award in Colloid and Surface Chemistry, the Lubrizol Award in Petroleum Chemistry, and the Humboldt Senior Scientist Award. In addition, the Robert L. Burwell Lectureship Award of the (North American) Catalysis Society was established in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the field of catalysis. Professor Burwell was also known for the first short course in heterogeneous catalysis that he taught for several years together with Michel Boudart.
To those who knew him personally, Burwell was not only an imposing intellect, but a warm, deeply caring, pleasant person, a complicated person with many facets. For instance, while wise and judicious, he nevertheless conducted himself with a great sense of humor and wit. Any who he favored soon realized he could engage in lively conversation on practically any subject. Many of his coworkers also remembered him for his numerous perceptive scientific advice and suggestions. Very often in seminars, students felt that they learned more about a subject from his probing questions than the actual seminar itself. His family remembered him also as a caretaker extraordinaire. His devotion to his wife, particularly during the last year of her life, will be remembered by all.
Dr. Burwell was a walking encyclopedia—indeed he was scientific consultant to the World Book Encyclopedia. He read extensively on virtually every subject. He particularly enjoyed a commanding knowledge of the birds, flora and fauna and could be seen bird watching in the snowy early springs in Evanston. He enjoyed cultural matters and sharing of his knowledge with his colleagues, friends, and post-doctoral and graduate students, a trait he continued even after he retired to Virginia with his wife, where he became an active member of many local Virginia museums and a variety of genealogical societies (and a founder of the Computer Club and Wine Club at the retirement community). He was often expected to be the cultural guide for his group of friends on tours around the world. He particularly enjoyed teaching American culture and the nuances of the English language to his international post-doctoral and graduate students. Dr. Burwell loved to refer to the 4th of July as “the day we celebrate English becoming a foreign language”. He also possessed a cultivated taste for wine, and was proud of his collection of antique porcelain.
Perhaps the most appropriate reference to Robert Burwell was from Marie Westbrook, the Department Secretary of Chemistry at Northwestern, who referred to him always as “Mr. Burwell”, not as “Doctor” or “Professor”. When asked why, she replied: “A lot of people can become a Professor or a Doctor, and I use Mister just for him”. On May 15, Mr. Burwell passed away at the age of 91. He was buried on June 28th, 2003 in Christ Episcopal Church in West River, Maryland next to his beloved wife, Elise.
Prepared by Harold H. Kung, with contributions from Kathleen Taylor, Gary Haller, Polly Burwell Haynes, and Lou Allred.