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October 13, 2016

Obituary: Irving Wender

obit.wender_irvingIrving Wender, Distinguished University Research Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, died Sept. 16, 2016. He was 101.

Wender, born June 19, 1915, in Bronx, New York, earned a BS in chemistry from City College of New York, an MS from Columbia University, and a PhD in chemistry at Pitt in 1950. Prior to earning his PhD, he worked on the Manhattan Project in Chicago to develop the atomic bomb during World War II.

Afterward, he rose through several positions in the Pittsburgh Energy Research Center (PERC) of the Department of Interior’s U.S. Bureau of Mines: project coordinator, research director and finally head of the chemistry division.

His work focused on everything from mine safety to converting carbon monoxide and hydrogen into low-sulfur diesel fuel and using hydrogen for fuel.

Later in his career he also served as special assistant to the secretary of fossil energy in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), as well as director of the DOE’s Office of Advanced Research and other government posts in Washington, D.C.

In 1981, after retiring from government service, Wender joined the Pitt faculty as a research professor in the chemical and petroleum engineering department and as an adjunct professor in chemistry.

He was named Distinguished University Research Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in 1994.

He was the author or co-author of more than 200 papers and the editor of five books. He also held 11 patents.

Among his awards and honors were the H.H. Storch Award from the American Chemical Society’s fuel division for distinguished contributions to science and utilization of coal; the Pittsburgh Award of the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to chemistry; the Homer H. Lowry Award in Fossil Energy from the DOE for advancing fossil energy technology; and the Department of Chemistry’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

A retrospective of Wender’s work by the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which today encompasses PERC, praised Wender’s “outstanding contributions throughout his career as an innovative researcher, energy leader and dedicated educator.”

Says Eric J. Beckman, faculty member in chemical and petroleum engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering: “He was an incurable optimist. Early in his life he lost both a parent and a stepparent and graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree during the Depression, yet he never seemed to lose his optimistic outlook (this despite the fact that whenever you asked him how he was doing he would say ‘terrible’ or ‘awful’). Who else but an optimist acquires yet another three-year federal grant in their late 80s?

“He spent over 20 years at Pitt supervising multiple graduate students and postdocs and continuously bringing in research dollars,” Beckman adds. “He published highly cited work in the 1950s and in the 1990s — pretty remarkable. Basically, he behaved like a 40-something professor while actually being a 70-something professor; he always seemed ageless.”

What he remembers most about Wender, Beckman says, “was that he was a truly nice guy with a very silly sense of humor. He would leave notes for me and others signed Gnivri Rednew, which of course is Irving Wender spelled backwards.”

Recalls Swanson school Dean Gerald D. Holder: “He was a brilliant chemist, with a very good sense of humor and a congenial way about things.

“If you had any questions about organic chemistry, you could stop in and ask for a five-minute explanation, and you’d get a 30-minute explanation. He knew so much about our field.”

When Holder was a first-year professor at Columbia University, he was working on coal liquids and needed to contact Wender at PERC for research samples.

“He sent me this wide range of samples with a whole range of analytical details,” Holder says. “I was flabbergasted” that a novice faculty member could get such a helpful response from the PERC director.

Holder sponsored Wender’s table at a 100th-birthday celebration of Wender’s career, held by the North American Catalysis Society. He remembers “all these famous scientists from all over the world were there and paying homage to Irving.”

When the society first broached the idea of the gathering to Wender, his reply, Holder says, was “typical Irving. He wrote back and said, ‘I’d be happy for you to recognize me if I’m not dead.’”

Wender married Reah Margolin in 1942; she died in 1998. He is survived by his son Edward and daughter-in-law Mina; son Donald and daughter-in-law Janice; son Richard and daughter-in-law Diane; nine granddaughters; and three great-grandchildren. He also is survived by his companion of the past 17 years, Jean Gershon.

Memorial contributions may be sent to Rodef Shalom Temple, 4905 Fifth Ave., Pittsburgh 15213 or the American Cancer Society, 320 Bilmar Drive, Pittsburgh 15205.

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 4

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