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