Robert L. Burwell, Jr.: Helped established catalysis concepts

Robert L. Burwell, Jr.

Robert L. Bur­well, Jr.

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.
Con­tributed by Prof. H. Kung