Chemist's Legacy Grows, Thanks to His Sister

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Spring 2013 Issue of Techniques


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John Kirkwood.

In 1922, 15-year-old John "Jack" Kirkwood visited Pasadena with his family to escape the Kansas winter. An intellectually curious boy, Kirkwood sat in on Caltech classes. He soon found himself discussing chemistry with Arthur Amos Noyes, one of the world's leading chemists. Noyes invited the teenager to leave high school and study chemistry at Caltech—a particular compliment since Noyes believed "research is a sensitive plant which will grow successfully only from carefully selected seeds—the best brains in the nation."

The course of Kirkwood's life was forever altered. He entered Caltech as a freshman that fall. His strong-willed father, however, clung to the hope that his son would return to the Midwest and attend the University of Kansas. Instead, Kirkwood transferred after two years at Caltech to the University of Chicago, where he received his BS at age 19. He earned a PhD from MIT at 21, did postdoctoral research in Europe and at MIT, then joined the Cornell chemistry faculty in 1934.

Margaret Kirkwood Philipsborn.

In the late 1930s, his youngest sister Margaret Philipsborn (then Kirkwood) enrolled at Cornell. She looked up to her brother as a brilliant scientist and trusted confidant, the person she turned to for advice. She followed in Kirkwood's footsteps, geographically speaking, studying acting and performing at the Pasadena Playhouse and then earning her MA at the University of Chicago. After the death of her husband, Martin Philipsborn, she moved to London and immersed herself in international policy. "Aunt Margie was a larger than life figure," recalls her nephew Robert Bonner. "She felt that whatever you do, it's of the utmost importance that you lead an interesting life. She certainly did."

Kirkwood pursued his interesting life at Cornell, but he never forgot Noyes and Caltech. Chemist Linus Pauling drew on that bond when he wooed Kirkwood back to Caltech in 1947 by creating the Arthur A. Noyes Professorship just for him. In his five years at Caltech, Kirkwood developed theories that revolutionized physical chemistry. The Kirkwood-Riseman theory shaped the study of polymers (a range of materials, from plastic to cellulose, distinguished by their molecular structures and the way they form). Kirkwood-Buff theories are still used to interpret experimental data. Kirkwood left Caltech to chair Yale's chemistry department, where he remained until his death from cancer in 1959 at age 52.

Robert Bonner.

Fifty years after Kirkwood's death, Bonner arranged for Philipsborn to meet with two Caltech chemists. Bonner, by then a Caltech trustee, had discussed Caltech's continuing leadership in chemistry with Philipsborn, and she wanted to use her will to endow graduate fellowships at Caltech and Yale in honor of her brother. Jackie Barton, Caltech's Hanisch Memorial Professor and chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and her husband, Bren Professor of Chemistry, Peter Dervan, visited Philipsborn in London.

The conversation reinforced Philipsborn's desire to endow fellowships. Barton explained that graduate students are the lifeblood of the division and described the fellowship program she is building to support outstanding scholars.

"Our students are at the heart of our research," Barton says. "They are an indispensable part of everything we do, and our greatest challenge is to provide consistent support for them." Philipsborn passed away in 2011, leaving a larger estate than expected. Her bequest endowed two graduate fellowships and a professorship at both Caltech and Yale. The John G. Kirkwood and the Margaret Kirkwood Philipsborn graduate fellowships will help Caltech support generations of "carefully selected seeds"—some of the best graduate students in the world—as they conduct innovative research and become leaders in chemistry. Likewise, the professorship will recognize and support extraordinary achievement. Philipsborn's bequest established a permanent endowment for the Noyes Professorship held by Kirkwood decades ago; it has been renamed the John G. Kirkwood and Arthur A. Noyes Professorship. Nobel Laureate Rudy Marcus holds the chair.

"Aunt Margie would be enormously pleased that her brother will be recognized in perpetuity at an institution he was so very fond of and that was the catalyst for his life's work" says Bonner. "And she'd be absolutely delighted to know that the Caltech professorship will forever connect her brother Jack with Arthur Noyes. She understood how influential that early interaction between them was."