Neal R. Amundson , Cullen Professor Emeritus of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Houston passed away peacefully on February 16 at the age of 95. He was a transformational figure considered by many as the most prominent and influential chemical engineering educator in the United States.
His contributions to the chemical engineering profession were both revolutionary and multifaceted. They included introducing science into a field which before his time was dominated by an empirical and qualitative approach. Amundson charted an innovative course that transformed the profession and led to the development of a science-based methodology guided by quantitative analysis. Starting in the 1950s, he repeatedly demonstrated the advantages of applying mathematical modeling and advanced solution techniques to predicting the behavior of complex chemical processes and systems. He pioneered the application of advanced mathematical techniques to understand the behavior of chemical processes, including chemical reactors, separation systems, polymerization, coal combustion and atmospheric science. His research led to a deeper understanding of such systems, and contributed to their better and safer design and operation. This approach is now widely followed all over the world in education, research and practice.
Amundson made major contributions in research, in education and academic and professional leadership. He authored more than 200 articles in journals and five books. This research led to many advances in the design and operation of chemical processes. He guided the research of 52 PhD students. He was a most influential mentor and many of his students achieved prominent positions in both universities and industry such as department chairs, deans, CEO of Exxon Mobil and members of the National Academy. He served as the US Editor of the journal Chemical Engineering Science during 1957-72, and led its establishment as the foremost journal of the profession then. He also served as Editor of the Prentice-Hall International Series in the Physical and Chemical Engineering Sciences, from its inception in 1961 until the year 2000.
Amundson had a major impact on changing the techniques and methodology used to tackle chemical engineering problems. His professional leadership roles included chairing the National Research Council committee which prepared the report, "Frontiers in Chemical Engineering: Research Needs and Opportunities" in 1988 that charted new directions and expansions for the profession, such as materials science and bioengineering. Amundson was a most successful academic leader. He was appointed Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Minnesota in 1949 at a relatively young age of 33 and remained in this position for the next 25 years, until 1974. With his own brilliant research and the hiring of outstanding faculty, he transformed that department from relative obscurity to the top ranked program in the country. He had the vision to foresee that infusion of talent from other disciplines can enrich education and research in chemical engineering. Thus, among his early faculty hires were individuals with background in microbiology, mathematics and chemistry, who themselves made enormous contributions to the field. Thus he was the earliest proponent of interdisciplinary research, so common in universities today. The magnitude of his contributions was recognized by the University of Minnesota by naming the building housing the Chemical Engineering department as Amundson Hall in 1979. Amundson joined the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Houston in 1977, and led to its prominence as well.
During his career, Amundson received a large number of prestigious awards from professional societies such as the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, American Society of Engineering Education and the American Chemical Society. He was elected as a member of many prestigious societies including the National Academy of Engineering (1970), National Academy of Sciences (1992) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1992). The International Symposia of Chemical Reaction Engineering (ISCRE) named an award in his honor to recognize a pioneer in the field, and made him the first recipient in 1996. He also received the NAE Founders' Award (1990) and honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Minnesota, University of Notre Dame, University of Pennsylvania, University of Guadalajara and Northwestern University.
Amundson was born on January 10, 1916 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned a B.S. and M.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1937 and 1941, respectively; and a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Minnesota in 1945. He married Shirley Dimond on September 25, 1941, who survives him along with children Gregg, Beth and Erik, 6 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren. Among his hobbies was raising orchids and at one time he held one of the largest private collections in the country. The family requests that in lieu of sending flowers, contributions can be made to funds in his memory at either the University of Minnesota or the University of Houston.
Published in Houston Chronicle on Feb. 22, 2011