Remembering an Icon

Chemistry professor Malcolm M. Renfrew leaves decades-long legacy at University of Idaho

The University of Idaho community lost an exemplary chemist, teacher, mentor and friend with the passing of Professor Emeritus Malcolm MacKenzie Renfrew. Renfrew died Oct. 12, his 103rd birthday, in Moscow.

Renfrew leaves a legacy at the university spanning more than eight decades, from his first foray into academia as a young man to his later years as a dedicated supporter of science, art and interdisciplinary activities across campus.

“Malcolm Renfrew earned national acclaim as a groundbreaking scientist, but his mind had a Renaissance reach across disciplines, and his heart was filled with human warmth,” said U-Idaho interim president Don Burnett. “He and his late wife Carol – with whom he shared 71 years of married life – were treasures of our university community. We shall never forget them.”

Beginning a Legacy

Renfrew was born Oct. 12, 1910, in Spokane, Wash., and he graduated from Potlatch High School in 1928. He began his relationship with UI as an undergraduate. He wrote for the student newspaper The Argonaut and was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity while working toward his bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He graduated in 1932 and continued on to a master’s degree, which he earned in 1934.

While earning his master’s degree, he met Carol Campbell, an economics student from Rosalia, Wash., and the pair married in June 1938. They had been married 71 years when Carol passed away in 2010.

After earning his doctoral degree at the University of Minnesota, Renfrew launched his career in polymer chemistry at DuPont, where he later became supervisor of the group that developed wartime uses for a material later known as Teflon.

After World War II ended, DuPont chose Renfrew to speak at a meeting of the American Chemical Society to announce the properties and commercial availability of the new product. The speech made national news and some people thought Renfrew was the inventor of Teflon, a false impression that he often needed to correct. However, he did continue to develop uses for the commercial non-stick cooking surface and his name is on several initial patents.

Building a Connection

Malcolm Renfrew helping an unidentified student Renfrew returned to Idaho in 1958 as the head of the physical sciences department, and later the chemistry department. His leadership led to expanded research and academic offerings, as well as construction of a new physical sciences building. The university dubbed the building Malcolm M. Renfrew Hall in 1985, in honor of his 75th birthday.

Professor of Chemistry Jean’ne Shreeve was one of Renfrew’s first faculty hires, and she became an important force in building up the research program.

“We had no instrumentation,” Shreeve recalls. “You can’t do much of any kind of scientific research without equipment, and when I arrived we had one infrared spectrometer which didn’t work most of the time. Suddenly, Malcolm was out raising money and we were getting modern equipment and things began to grow.”

Renfrew also took a strong, caring interest in the students. One story relates how he noticed one student was absent from a final exam. He found someone to watch the students, went to the missing student’s house, roused him from bed and delivered him to the classroom.

Many students remember evenings with the Renfrews, where they were entertained by dog tricks performed by the Renfrew pets and by Renfrew offering renditions of big band songs on his trombone.

“The students were always terribly important, and he and Carol entrained students in their home,” says Shreeve. “There was a good social relationship that he had with his students as well.”

Continuing a Relationship

Malcolm RenfrewRenfrew retired in 1976, but his dedication to the university never waned, and he and Carol were fixtures at campus events.

Renfrew remained involved in the sciences, volunteering as university patent director for 10 years and serving as safety editor for the Journal of Chemical Education. He and Shreeve became American Chemical Society Fellows. He also honed his artistic side, creating watercolor paintings of Moscow’s buildings and landscapes and playing the trombone in local bands.

Over the years, Malcolm and Carol Renfrew received numerous university awards and honors. Their support established the Malcolm M. Renfrew Interdisciplinary Colloquium, which brings together speakers and students from across campus, and the Malcolm and Carol Renfrew College of Science Faculty Fellowship Endowment, which supports faculty members who excel at research and serve as mentors for their students.

The Renfrews traveled extensively in their retirement, visiting all the continents except Antarctica. But all their travels led back home to Moscow and the University of Idaho, where they became legendary in their involvement with their community.

In October 2010, the university community celebrated Malcolm’s 100th birthday with guest speakers, campus events and a re-dedication of Renfrew Hall. Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter proclaimed the day Malcolm M. Renfrew Day in Idaho.

"Professor Malcolm Renfrew was revered because he exemplified all that was best about academia in general and the University of Idaho specifically," says Katherine Aiken, UI's interim provost. "He was intellectually inquisitive, devoted to the arts, and unfailingly supportive of colleagues and students. The last time I saw him in public he joined in the singing of the Alma Mater. I will remember him fondly whenever I attend any event at the University of Idaho."

This story is based in part on historical material provided in a 2007 History 418 project by Nydia Lovell and Holly Oakley.