Published October 1, 2020
Eli Ruckenstein passed away peacefully on September 30. A SUNY Distinguished Professor, Ruckenstein served on the faculty of the University at Buffalo for nearly fifty years.
During his tenure, his prolific and imaginative research advanced almost every area of interest to chemical engineers, making him arguably the most influential chemical engineer of his era as well as the most highly decorated member of the University at Buffalo faculty. The inspirational story of his journey from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of his profession, including receiving the U.S. National Medal of Science, is a tale of great struggle but also of great satisfaction.
The Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University at Buffalo presents an annual lecture series in his memory.
Eli was born in 1925 in Botosani, a small agricultural town in northern Romania. His family, previously well off, lost everything in the Great Depression and struggled with poverty during Eli’s formative years. He began school at seven but at 14 was expelled due to racial laws directed against Jews. The Jewish community responded by organizing a private high school where the teachers were intellectuals who loved their jobs and made schooling interesting and exciting. In his last two years of high school, Eli was taken into forced labor six days a week from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., carrying bricks on a scaffold. He studied independently and took exams at the end of each of these two years. This period was the start of his love of mathematics and his practice of self-teaching, laying the foundation for his future intellectual growth. His outstanding test scores earned him a spot in the Chemical Engineering program at the prestigious Polytechnic Institute in Bucharest, where he matriculated in 1944. There, he continued in his habit of teaching himself in the library more than attending formal classes. This approach to education, combined with an extraordinary memory, fostered Eli’s diverse and encyclopedic knowledge of the literature in chemical engineering and related fields, which became legendary among his students and colleagues.
In 1948, Eli married Velina Rothstein, a chemist, which Eli often described as “the best thing I have ever done”. Velina offered unflinching support of his career for more than seven decades of marriage. Soon after they married, Eli completed his degree, earning the title of Chemical Engineer, specialty “Petroleum” with distinction, in 1949. He was immediately hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Polytechnic Institute, a remarkable achievement given that he was not a member of the communist party. However, earning a Ph.D. at that time required being subjected to indoctrination and passing a difficult exam on Marxism-Leninism. As a result, he defended his Ph.D. thesis only in 1966, after that requirement was lifted and after he had already authored more than 100 scientific papers. Similarly, he was only promoted to associate professor after 15 years, and even as he became arguably the country’s most prominent engineer, was not promoted to full professor. He did win important scientific awards in Romania, including (1) The Prize of the Ministry of Education for research on turbulent heat and mass transfer (1958); (2) The Prize of Ministry of Education for education (1961); (3) the “Gheorghe Spacu” Prize for Research in the Surface Phenomena Field awarded by the Romanian Academy (1964); and (4) The Prize of the Ministry of Education for research in distillation (1964). In 1993, he was awarded a “Doctor Honoris Causa” by the Polytechnic Institute of Bucharest.
Before 1958, Romanian scientists could not publish in most Western journals. After this restriction was lifted, the broader scientific community gradually became aware of Eli’s seminal contributions. In 1969, he was invited to spend six weeks at University College and Imperial College in London. Upon returning to Bucharest, he found an invitation to visit Clarkson University, with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation, which he accepted. By the time he left Romania, he had already authored more than 150 scientific papers. After his year at Clarkson, Eli was offered a position as tenured full professor at the University of Delaware, where he stayed until 1973. This period at Clarkson and Delaware was one of enormous expansion of Eli’s research interests as he gained access to a wealth of scientific literature and resources that had been unavailable in Bucharest. However, this was also a period of great personal challenge, as Eli and Velina were forced to leave their two teenage children, Andrei and Lelia, behind in Romania. Only after two years and extraordinary efforts were the children able to join them in the US. Today, Andrei is a theoretical physicist, former Vice President for Research, and currently chair of the Physics department at Boston University. Lelia, a former book editor and literary critic, is now a legal research associate.
In 1973, Eli was recruited to the University at Buffalo as Faculty Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences by Prof. William Gill. Gill had recently come to UB as Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences from Clarkson University, where he got to know Eli. In 1981, Eli was named a SUNY Distinguished Professor, and he remained an extraordinarily productive member of the faculty for the rest of his life. He authored more than 900 additional journal publications after joining UB, continuing long past his formal retirement in 2011. He authored roughly fifty papers after his 90th birthday, including a dozen in 2019 and several more in 2020. For over 45 years, he was a major force in the growth and development of what is now the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at UB, bringing national attention to the department, mentoring dozens of students, researchers, and young faculty members, and providing sage advice to generations of department chairs. He also became legendary for his questions and comments at department seminars. For nearly any topic a seminar speaker might be addressing, Eli could say “In the 1970s, we considered that problem and ….” he would often go on to provide a profound insight that might open a whole new research direction for the speaker.
Over five decades in the U.S., Eli has received countless honors paying tribute to groundbreaking contributions across many fields of research, most notably the National Medal of Science, bestowed in a White House ceremony in 1999. Ruckenstein was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1990 and he received the Founders Award from the Academy in 2004, an honor bestowed on a single engineer each year across all disciplines. In 2012 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. From the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, he won the Alpha Chi Sigma Award for his work in transport phenomena (1977), the Walker Award for his work in catalysis (1988), and the Founders Award for his overall contributions to science (2002). From the American Chemical Society. he received the Kendall Award for his research in colloids and interfaces (1986), the Langmuir Lecture Award for his contributions to macromolecules (1994), the Schoellkopf Medal for his work in supported metal catalysts (1991), and the Murphree Award in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry (1996). He was given the Humboldt Award by Germany for his work in surfactants (1985), and the Creativity Award by the National Science Foundation for his work in biomolecules (1985). Eli has been honored with numerous named lectureships, visitorships, and invited lectures around the world, and served as a visiting professor at the Catholic University of Leuven (1977-78), Technion, Haifa, Isfail (1978), Bayreuth University in Germany (1986), and Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh (1988-89). He is a fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, which, on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, designated him as one of 50 Eminent Chemical Engineers of the Foundation age of chemical engineering. UB has recognized Eli’s contributions with the Dean’s Award for Engineering Achievement (1999), the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal (1999), and the Walter P. Cooke Award (2003). Since 2009, the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering has hosted an annual Ruckenstein Lecture in Eli’s honor, which serves as a lasting tribute to his enormous contributions to the department.
From 2009 to 2019, Eli worked with former students and colleagues to publish eight volumes in which he organized his most important contributions in different areas over the decades. Their titles highlight the scope and breadth of his diverse scientific contributions. These volumes include Thermodynamics of Solutions: From Gases to Pharmaceuticals to Proteins (2009), Nanodispersion: Interactions, Stability, and Dynamics (2010), Heterogeneous Catalysis: Experimental and Theoretical Studies (2014), Kinetic Theory of Nucleation (2016), a two-volume set on Wetting: Theory and Experiments (2018), and a two-volume set on Functional and Modified Polymeric Materials (2019) with volumes on Concentrated Emulsion Polymerization and Solution and Surface Polymerization.
Beyond all of the challenges, successes, and recognition, Eli was perhaps best known for being an extraordinarily driven yet compassionate human being. While intensely focused on his research and dedicated to the success of his students and colleagues, he was also deeply concerned with broader issues facing the world. He was an avid reader of biographies and history, and he could converse deeply on topics of world history or philosophy as well as thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, or quantum mechanics. Shaped by an extraordinary intellect and drive, by the love and support of an exceptional spouse, and by overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles that he faced in his formative years, Eli Ruckenstein was a truly unique and irreplaceable genius.
He is survived by his wife Velina, his son Andrei and daughter Lelia, their respective spouses, Shelagh Leahy and James O’Malley, and his two grandchildren, Olivia and Leo Ruckenstein.