Wilhelm, Richard Herman

Wilhelm, Richard Herman (1909-1968), a teacher of chemical engineering for thirty-four years and chairman of the department for fourteen, was regarded by his colleagues as one of the leading engineer scientists in Princeton's history. His innovative drive made itself felt in teaching, in research, and in administration. Under his leadership the Department of Chemical Engineering rose to be one of the most eminent in the country.

Born and raised in New York City, Wilhelm earned his three degrees (B.S. in Eng., Ch.E., and Ph.D.) at Columbia, and then spent his entire professional career at Princeton. He came here as an instructor in 1934, became a full professor in 1946, and chairman of his department in 1954.

An authority on chemical reaction engineering, he pioneered in fluidization and the development of fluid beds, which revolutionized the petroleum-cracking process. During his last years he discovered and refined the principle of parametric pumping, a process for separating the components of fluid mixtures, which has possible uses for separating salt from ocean water and waste from streams and may explain certain processes in living cells.

Although always an energetic and productive investigator, he gave first priority to teaching. ``The primary function of the university is to teach,'' he once said, ``and its most important focus of education should be on the undergraduate.'' According to the Princeton Engineer, ``his chief pleasure was working with students in the classroom and the laboratory.'' He was at the same time a magnet for graduate students -- their number increased from ten to seventy during his chairmanship -- and his Ph.D.'s are to be found on chemical engineering faculties across the country. His faculty colleagues described him as ``a gracious man, always sensitive to the concerns of those around him.'' In his presence, they said, his students and his associates ``felt welcome, at ease, and reassured by his confidence in them.''

His research and teaching won him many professional honors, including three awards from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers: the William H. Walker Award and the Professional Progress Award for his contributions to research and publication, the Warren K. Lewis Award for his ``distinguished and continuing contributions to chemical engineering education.'' He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1964 and was given the American Chemical Society's award in industrial and engineering chemistry in 1966.

Wilhelm's creative energies spread to all parts of the University. He directed a conference on ``Engineering and Human Affairs'' as part of the University's Bicentennial Celebration in 1946. Three years later he organized a program of study combining elements of chemical engineering, biology, chemistry, and mathematics, to prepare students for careers in the biological industry and for postgraduate research in this area. Later he helped devise a program in engineering and public affairs, jointly administered by the engineering school and the Woodrow Wilson School. In 1966 he helped organize a University-wide committee to coordinate and strengthen Princeton's work in the life sciences.

In June 1968, two months after his election to the National Academy of Engineering, he was appointed by the trustees to the Henry Putnam University Professorship, a chair of special distinction used ``for recognition of a scholar of extraordinary ability in any discipline.'' Six weeks later while on vacation he died of heart attack at the age of fifty-nine. Thus, his faculty colleagues wrote, ``Princeton University and the science and art of engineering . . . lost far too soon the contributions of a creative teacher-scholar.''

The R. H. Wilhelm Award in Chemical Reaction Engineering was established by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in 1973. The following year, the University, with contributions from colleagues, friends, and students, instituted the Richard H. Wilhelm Lectureships in Chemical Engineering.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

Go to Search A Princeton Companion