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Rutherford Aris

Rutherford "Gus" Aris literally wrote the book about how chemical engineering should be done.

Death of a Renaissance Man

A memorial service will be held Saturday for Rutherford Aris, who laid much of the groundwork for chemical engineering and also championed the arts and humanities

By Deane Morrison

Published on November 11, 2005

In 1958 Neal Amundson, the legendary head of the University's chemical engineering and materials science department, wanted to hire Rutherford Aris as an assistant professor and wasn't about to let a little thing like Aris' lack of an advanced degree stand in his way. He hired the young Englishman, whom he had spotted working for the chemical company I.C.I., and never looked back. Aris, a superb mathematician with a rare ability to grasp the most complex chemical problems, went on to literally write the book about how chemical engineering should be done. When he died Nov. 2 at age 76, Aris had earned virtually every engineering honor in existence while establishing himself as a scholar of classics. A memorial service for the retired Regents Professor will be held at 9 a.m. Saturday (Nov. 12) at Friendship Village, 8100 Highwood Drive, Bloomington. Friends and associates of Aris will gather at 1 p.m. for a reception in the Campus Club of Coffman Union. Of all the famous personalities on campus, none better personified the adage that still waters run deep. His quiet demeanor masked an intellect that had mastered not only chemical engineering, but paleography, the study of ancient manuscripts, and calligraphy. Besides being a star among stars in chemical engineering, he held an appointment in the University's department of classical and Near Eastern studies, where he taught classes and published books and research articles in the field. He even published a technical paper written entirely in Latin. But he was known to all as simply Gus.

Of all the famous personalities on campus, none better personified the adage that still waters run deep. His quiet demeanor masked an intellect that had mastered not only chemical engineering, but paleography, the study of ancient manuscripts, and calligraphy.

"He was exceedingly good," says Amundson, who was a close friend of Aris and wrote about 35 papers with him. "But after he'd been on the faculty a while, he found that not having a degree singled him out." After two years, Aris remedied the situation by bundling together all the papers he had published to date and sending them as a dissertation to the University of London, where he received an "external" Ph.D. -- a situation akin to correspondence school. He went on to receive a D.Sc. degree from the same university, this time for research done specifically for the degree. Credentials securely in place, he resumed his business of "establishing ground rules for chemical engineering," according to current chemical engineering and materials science department head Frank Bates. "Gus mathematically modelled the interactions and interrelationships among chemicals undergoing reactions to make new chemicals," says Bates. "He was masterful at reducing these incredibly complicated systems to mathematical formulas that could be solved, sometimes in clever ways. It's a rare person who can bring mathematics and chemistry together and make the mathematics work. The papers he wrote were so clear, correct and concise, they qualified as 'textbook examples.'" "His work on [the molecular mechanisms and speeds of chemical reactions] and chemical reactor design allowed much improved design of chemical processes," says his former graduate student W. Harmon Ray, a chemical engineering faculty member at the University of Wisconsin. "Today we have safer, more cost effective and more energy efficient industrial manufacturing because of Aris' discoveries, teaching, and influence on his field." Intent on giving chemical engineering graduate students a well-rounded education, Aris began a seminar series, now named for him, that brought in speakers to talk about every conceivable topic--except chemical engineering. The seminars would run for several weeks and were held every three or four years, says Bates. The fruits of this innovation were never more evident than when a series of English professors staged a series of intellectual battles, the speakers attacking each other's opinions. "We learned how other departments and scholars work," says Bates. Other series dealt with such topics as ethics, the concept of elegance, and, in spring 2005, the field of education, with President Bruininks delivering the first lecture. Aris, though in poor health, attended. "He made us do things that we otherwise wouldn't have, and we're better people for it," says Bates. A lover of humor and pranks, Aris had fun with an editor at "Who's Who" who kept sending Aris, who was already listed, a new questionnaire addressed to "Aris Rutherford." Efforts to correct the editor failed, so Aris finally completed the questionnaire as Aris MacPherson Rutherford, a "Professor of Distillation" who had trained at the Strath Spey and Glenlivit Institute of Distillation. His publications included books on "Sampling Techniques" and "American Football--A Guide for Interested Scots." And so he was listed, until a tip to newspapers brought the prank into the open. In recent years, Aris kept active in department affairs despite Parkinson's disease, says Bates. He would have coffee with colleagues, and, an engineer to the last, invented a way to keep his unsteady frame from spilling it. "The coffee cup was in a platform that was suspended by three strings about a foot and a half long," Bates recalls. "He would carry the cup around in that, and even if it was brimming with coffee, it wouldn't spill. It was a wonderful tribute to his ability to function in spite of his illness." A man of deep religious convictions, Aris set an example of high moral and ethical standards and was known for his kindness and willingness to help others. Among numerous honors, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. An obituary is online at the Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science Web site.