Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • R. BYRON BIRD (1924-2020)



    ROBERT BYRON BIRD was born on Feb. 5, 1924, in Bryan, Texas, to Byron M., a professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M University, and Ethel Vera (Antrim) Bird. Bob passed away on Nov. 13, 2020, at age 96.

    Bob obtained his elementary and junior high school education in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and his high school education in Washington, D.C. He attended the University of Maryland from 1941 to 1943, where he was initiated into the Alpha Rho Chapter of Alpha Chi Sigma in 1943. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II; he was a second lieutenant and was involved in action in Belgium along the Austrian border. After discharge he continued his studies in chemical engineering at the University of Illinois and received his B.S. in 1947.

    He received his Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1950 from the University of Wisconsin and then served as a postdoctoral research fellow for two years at the University of Amsterdam under Jan de Boer, professor of theoretical physics. During this appointment, he co-authored his first book with his advisor, Joseph O. Hirschfelder (NAS 1953), and another professor, Charles F. Curtiss. Titled The Molecular Theory of Gases and Liquids (Wiley, 1964), this 1,200-page book has become a classic in the field. After his postdoctoral fellowship, Bob taught for a year at Cornell University, and then he was invited by prominent chemical engineer Olaf A. Hougen (NAE 1974) to join the University of Wisconsin-Madison chemical engineering faculty in 1953.

    Bob wrote several books over the course of his distinguished career; however, he is best known for the textbook Transport Phenomena (Wiley, 1960), which he co-authored with Warren E. Stewart (NAE 1992) and Edwin N. Lightfoot (NAE 1979, NAS 1995). This textbook presented the topics of fluid flow, heat transfer, and mass transfer in parallel and in depth. Today, nearly every chemical engineering department has an undergraduate course on transport phenomena and uses this textbook, which has been translated into many languages. In addition, in collaboration with Charles F. Curtiss, Robert C. Armstrong (NAE 2008), and Ole Hassager, Bob wrote two volumes for the Dynamics of Polymeric Liquids (Wiley, 1987): volume 1 was subtitled Fluid Mechanics, and volume 2 was subtitled Kinetic Theory.

    Bob has received many awards and forms of recognition for his writing and research, largely in the field of rheology. Perhaps the most significant was the National Medal of Science presented by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 for “his profoundly influential books and research on kinetic theory, transport phenomena, the behavior of polymeric fluids, and foreign language study for engineers and scientists.” In 1974, he received the Bingham Medal for his “distinguished career as an educator and for his research achievements in rheology.” He was recipient of the Reed M. Izatt and James J. Christensen Lectureship in 2010. In 2004, he was granted the Dutch title Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau for his promotion of the Dutch language and culture in the United States and at the University of Wisconsin. He was inducted into the Alpha Chi Sigma Hall of Fame in 2008.

    He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering (1969) and the National Academy of Sciences (1989), and a fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters (1982). He was a member of several foreign academies, including the Royal Netherland Academy of Arts and Sciences (1985) and the Royal Belgian Academy of Sciences (1994). He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1981, the American Physical Society since 1970, the American Academy of Mechanics since 1983, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science since 2015.

    In my opinion, Bob’s greatest skill was being a teacher. I took as many of his courses as I could, and I served as his teaching assistant for one. His lectures were very well organized and in depth. He did not use overheads; instead, he used the blackboard with remarkable skill. He illustrated theory and concepts by working carefully chosen example problems. He began with a sketch of the concept or problem on the left side of the blackboard. The answer or result appeared inside a box on the right side of the blackboard. The space in the middle was dedicated to the details of the analysis. He sprinkled his lectures with funny or illustrative comments about the analysis. Over my 50-plus years of teaching polymer science and chemical engineering, I have tried very hard to be like Bob Bird. I regret that I never told him about the impact he had on my career.

    Bob was reportedly fluent in eight languages other than English, and he wrote books to aid English speakers. As an amateur genealogist, he also wrote several books on his family heritage. He loved limericks and puzzles. He was fond of opera and classical music and was an accomplished pianist, organist, and composer.

    Bob was an avid outdoorsman who loved hiking, canoeing, swimming, and much more. The closeness of Madison to the wild Quentico Provincial Park in Ontario was likely one factor in his decision to join the University of Wisconsin. He took an annual trip into the wilderness every year he was able. He often invited students and university visitors to join him on his swimming and canoeing excursions on Wisconsin’s many lakes and rivers. One of my favorite memories is of Bob paddling John Prausnitz (NAE 1979, NAS 1973) around Lake Mendota; it was clear that John did not enjoy this excursion as much as Bob did.