Campus remembers celebrated chemical engineer

Editor’s note: The life of Dr. T.W. Fraser Russell will be celebrated at a memorial service at 1 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 22, in Pearson Hall, with a reception to follow in the lobby of the Harker Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory. Parking will be available in the Pearson Hall parking lot.

Thomas William Fraser Russell, the Allan P. Colburn Professor Emeritus of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware, died on Nov. 29, 2019.

“On behalf of the entire University community, I extend deepest condolences to Dr. Russell’s family, his former students and colleagues and the many individuals on our campus and beyond whose lives he touched,” UD President Dennis Assanis said. “His remarkable record of service to this University lasted more than four and a half decades—as an esteemed member of our chemical engineering faculty, director of the Institute of Energy Conversion, chair of the chemical engineering department, acting dean of the College of Engineering and vice provost for research. His impact on the University has been immeasurable.”

Dr. Russell was born on Aug. 5, 1934, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. He received his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in chemical engineering in 1956 and 1958, respectively, from the University of Alberta and then worked for the Research Council of Alberta and then Union Carbide Canada before arriving at the University of Delaware in 1961. He received his doctoral degree in chemical engineering from UD in 1964 and joined the faculty that year—the only UD chemical engineering faculty member ever to join the faculty immediately after graduating from the doctoral program. In 2009, Dr. Russell retired from teaching.

“Fraser Russell came to the University to earn his doctoral degree in chemical engineering in 1961, and happily for us, he never left,” Provost Robin Morgan said. “Joining the faculty in 1964, he handily combined all the best attributes of a scholar and scientist, earning accolades for both his teaching and service, while distinguishing himself and the University in the realm of research in chemical engineering. Fraser’s talent for leadership resulted in important administrative posts on campus where his expertise and insights catalyzed meaningful change at UD. Throughout his long career, countless faculty, students and staff members have been enriched by his keen intellect, his heartfelt and steadfast dedication to the University of Delaware, and his unforgettable impish sense of humor.”

At the University’s Commencement ceremony on May 29, 2010, Dr. T.W. Fraser (right) is presented an honorary degree by Gil Sparks, then chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees.

Over Dr. Russell’s 45 years as a chemical engineering faculty member, he also held several administrative appointments. He served as the University’s vice provost for research from 2000 to 2005, director of the Institute of Energy Conversion (IEC) from 1979 to 1995, the IEC chief engineer from 1996 to 2009, chair of the chemical engineering department from 1986 to 1991, acting dean of the College of Engineering from 1978 to 1979 and associate dean of the college from 1974 to 1977.

Levi Thompson, dean of the College of Engineering, received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from UD and had Dr. Russell as a professor. Thompson then earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan.

“Fraser Russell was a giant in the field of chemical engineering who garnered significant acclaim for his work in reaction engineering, solar cell manufacturing and more,” said Thompson. “A true scholar and educator, he was dedicated to sharing his knowledge with students and early-career faculty, and his influence lives on in the many engineers he has inspired. On a personal note, I am grateful to have had him as one of my professors while an undergraduate student. He was among my favorites then and now.”

Dr. Russell, author of three textbooks, eight book chapters, seven patents, 90 technical papers and 11 engineering education research papers, was lauded in the engineering community. In 1990, he was named a member of the National Academy of Engineering, among the highest honors for an engineer. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) honored Dr. Russell with the Warren K. Lewis Award for Chemical Engineering Education in 2010, named him a Fellow in 1995, and awarded him the AIChE Award in Chemical Engineering Practice in 1987.

The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) honored Dr. Russell with the ASEE Chemical Engineering Division Lifetime Achievement Award in Chemical Engineering Pedagogical Scholarship in 2010 and the Chemical Engineering Division 3M Lectureship Award in 1984.

In 2006, Dr. Russell is inducted into the University’s Alumni Wall of Fame by then University President David P. Roselle. This honor recognizes UD alumni from around the world who have distinguished themselves in professional and community endeavors.

Norman Wagner, the Unidel Robert L. Pigford Chair in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, joined UD in 1991 and was the department chair when Dr. Russell retired in 2009.

“Fraser was renowned as an ‘engineer’s engineer,’” said Wagner. “His impressive technical prowess and sharp intellect, for which he was internationally revered, his books, patents and scientific writings, and the thousands of students he taught, mentored and influenced over more than five decades are only [one] side of his legacy. His compassion, friendship and humanity will be what we most remember. He was very passionate about the people around him and made an impact in the lives of so many. I dearly miss his smile and wit.”

The University of Delaware recognized Dr. Russell with an honorary doctoral degree in 2010. “We always knew that you were an uncommon man, Dr. Russell—not only a gifted researcher and teacher but also a highly effective administrator,” the honorary degree citation reads. “It seems, Dr. Russell, that you can do it all, and we are most grateful that you chose the University of Delaware as your academic home these many years.”

Dr. Russell was named to UD’s Alumni Wall of Fame in 2006 and honored with an Excellence in Teaching Award in 1968. Upon Dr. Russell’s retirement in 2009, UD created an academic enrichment fund, the T.W. Fraser Russell Undergraduate Enrichment Endowment, to help selected undergraduate chemical engineering students access research and internship experiences.

Also named in honor of Dr. Russell is the Unidel Fraser Russell Chair for the Environment, a five-year career development chair that has been held by Holly Michael, an associate professor of geology at UD, since 2013. In 1999, Dr. Russell established the Shirley and Fraser Russell Teaching Fellowship to support one graduate student per year at the University of Delaware and one at the University of Alberta.

Dr. T.W. Fraser Russell, early in his career. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

Prasad Dhurjati, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, met Dr. Russell upon joining UD in 1982.

“He was a champion for undergraduate students, for teaching and for undergraduate education,” said Dhurjati. “He believed that faculty who did inspired teaching should be recognized as much as champion fundraisers in research. He also did pioneering research in photovoltaics and semiconductor manufacturing.”

Dr. Russell was a strong believer in University service, had a great sense of humor and made himself very approachable to students, said Dhurjati.

“He was a ‘people person’ and a wonderful colleague to have for nearly four decades,” said Dhurjati. “He loved hiking in White Clay Creek park and would sometimes arm-twist his colleagues to go hiking with him. He believed that the department that hiked together stayed together!”

Anne Skaja Robinson, Trustee Professor and Department Head of Chemical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, was a member of UD’s faculty from 1997 to 2012, and she worked closely with Dr. Russell during her time at UD.

“Fraser was an amazing colleague and friend,” said Robinson.

When Robinson was a new assistant professor, she started out teaching a course and found herself struggling to present the material in the way a prior faculty member had. She talked to Dr. Russell, knowing that he had won awards for excellent teaching. As they discussed the content, he asked: “How would you treat this kind of problem if you working on this in your laboratory?”

That question “has changed the way I teach today,” said Robinson. “In fact, his discussions through all of the material eventually led to a re-design of how we taught this course – Mass and Heat Transfer – and eventually we ended up writing a textbook on this subject.” Dr. Russell, Robinson and Wagner wrote the textbook Mass and Heat Transfer: Analysis of Mass Contactors and Heat Exchangers, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2008.

This isn’t the only piece of Dr. Russell’s wisdom that has stayed with Robinson.

“Fraser always suggested taking a walk in White Clay Creek state park as an approach to problem solving,” said Robinson. “To this day, I find that working through difficult situations is best done while walking.”