Malcolm Renfrew Celebrates 100
Malcolm Renfrew Celebrates 100
Born in Spokane on October. 12, 1910, Malcolm MacKenzie Renfrew’s life has taken him from the lumber mills of Potlatch to wartime research and development of breakthrough polymers, to teaching and mentoring generations of young chemists. He earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Idaho in 1932 and 1934, as well as an honorary degree in 1976.
As an undergraduate student at Idaho, Renfrew joined Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and the staff of the Argonaut, the student newspaper. He seriously considered journalism as a major until he had a run-in with the new University president, Mervin Gordon Neale, over an editorial he had written against a required student fee to support athletics. He chose chemistry as his major; attracted by the potential of better-paying jobs.
While earning his master’s degree, he met Carol Campbell, a University of Idaho undergraduate economics student. Romance blossomed, and they agreed to marry in the future. Both believed students didn’t marry until their education was completed. But, they traveled east together by train and Malcolm got off in Minneapolis to start work on his doctoral degree at the University of Minnesota. Carol continued on to Brown University in Rhode Island to work toward a master’s degree in economics. After Malcolm earned his doctoral degree and had a job, he and Carol married in June 1938.
During his last year at the University of Minnesota, Renfrew received a DuPont fellowship that provided a “guaranteed job” as a research chemist with E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., and he and Carol moved to New Jersey.
Renfrew started at a salary of $200 a month in a research group that was developing new polymers, and he later became supervisor of the group that was developing wartime uses for a polymer that would later be known at Teflon.
After World War II ended, DuPont chose Malcolm to be the speaker 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 Malcolm 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.
Malcolm later held industrial research and management positions with General Mills, Inc. in Minneapolis and Spencer Kellogg and Sons, Inc. in Buffalo.
In 1958, a family friend who was a professor at the University of Buffalo informed Carol that the University of Idaho needed a head of the physical science department and asked if Malcolm might have an interest. The Renfrews agreed it was an appealing possibility and Malcolm applied for the position. But, there was no response. Later, Malcolm and Carol were in Fargo, North Dakota, to consider a job offer at North Dakota State University. Idaho administrators chased down the Renfrews and called to offer the position to Malcolm. He accepted on the spot.
In the late 1950s, when Renfrew arrived back in Idaho to lead the Department of Physical Sciences, interest in the sciences was strong, partially in response to the launching of Russia’s Sputnik satellite. The University had recently introduced doctoral program in chemistry and physics, but there was little research emphasis.
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,” recalls Shreeve. “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.”
He addressed the need for better facilities and, in 1965, a new building was opened for the chemistry and physics programs. In 1967, the two programs separated administratively; Renfrew spent a sabbatical year at Stanford University in a National Science Foundation program to upgrade college chemistry education. A year later, he returned to Idaho as the head of the chemistry department.
The Renfrews also took a strong, caring interest in the students.
Richard Swindell earned his doctoral degree in chemistry at Idaho in 1972. He was an international student from New Zealand, and by law, neither he nor his wife could take a part-time job. Money was an issue as they were living off his meager graduate stipend and some savings. They decided to take a year off to teach high school in Canada.
“When we advised Malcolm of our decision, he strongly counseled us not to do this,” says Swindell. “In his experience, graduate students who suspend their research for even a brief time, seldom returned. He persuaded us to hold on for a couple of weeks while he ‘made some inquiries.’ A few days later, he returned with an offer of a different form of financial assistance. It was somewhat greater than the graduate stipend but it was enough to persuade us to hang in there until I graduated. I remember that kind and thoughtful assistance as being the single most defining moment of my career.”
Renfrew also watched out for students in the classroom. One Renfrew 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.
“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.”
Many students remember those evenings with the Renfrews, where they were entertained by dog tricks performed by the Renfrew pets, and Malcolm offering renditions of big band songs on his trombone.
In 1976, Renfrew retired with a well-deserved and appropriate nickname of “Mr. Chemistry.” Renfrew also was honored that year as the recipient of the James Flack Norris Award for his contributions to physical organic chemistry. In 1985, to mark Renfrew’s 75th birthday, the Physical Sciences Building was named Malcolm M. Renfrew Hall.
For Malcolm and Carol Renfrew, retirement was not an excuse to slow down. Malcolm devoted 10 years as a volunteer patent director for the University and continued to produce the Department of Chemistry’s alumni newsletter, Vandalchemist.
He also remained active with the American Chemical Society and as safety editor for the Journal of Chemical Education. In 2010, Renfrew and Shreeve were named American Chemical Society Fellows in recognition of being “distinguished scientists who have demonstrated outstanding accomplishments in chemistry and made important contributions to ACS.”
But other activities also flourished. He pursued his interest in painting and produced many watercolor paintings of the region. He also shined up his old trombone to play in the Vandal Booster Non-marching Pep Band and the Hog Heaven Big Band.
Malcolm and Carol traveled extensively in their retirement, and visited 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.
For decades, they attended nearly every campus event – concerts, plays, lectures, seminars, symposia and athletic events – to applaud the accomplishments of students and faculty. They also became dedicated and generous philanthropists. In recognition of their longtime involvement in and support of the University, Malcolm and Carol Renfrew received nearly every college, alumni and University award available. Recognition by the University and community also has come in other forms; they have been Homecoming Parade Grand Marshals and Moscow Renaissance Fair king and queen.
The inseparable Renfrews spent nearly 50 years in their Moscow home that is just a short walk to University campus until a few years ago when they moved to the Moscow Good Samaritan Village. Carol passed away January 12, 2010.
Malcolm Renfrew’s 100th birthday certainly is worthy of a great celebration, as is his impact on the University of Idaho.
“I’ve been lucky enough in my 34 years at the University of Idaho to have a lot of mentors who demonstrated, just by their daily action, what it was to be a professional, and he certainly is one of them.” says Dan Bukvich, professor of music. “Just the fact that you’ve got a guy who is just a supporter of all things positive. What an example about how to care about your town, your workplace and everybody in it. That’s what we honor.”
This story is based on historical material provided in a 2007 History 418 project by Nydia Lovell ‘09 and Holly Oakley.
The University of Idaho celebrated an achievement of life, learning, engagement and legacy as Malcolm M. Renfrew, professor emeritus of chemistry, marked his 100th birthday on Oct. 12, 2010.
Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter proclaimed Oct. 12, 2010, to be Malcolm M. Renfrew Day in Idaho. The governor’s proclamation recognizes Renfrew’s “highly successful career as a research scientist for several private corporations” and Renfrew’s tenure and accomplishments as head of the University’s physical sciences and chemistry departments.
Two more public events will mark Renfrew’s centennial birthday:
Saturday, Oct. 16:
Rededication of Malcolm M. Renfrew Hall. The event includes remarks by President Duane Nellis at 2:15 p.m., light refreshments and an exclusive viewing of Renfrew’s watercolors coordinated by the Palouse Watercolor Socius. The Renfrew Building was originally dedicated to honor his 75th birthday in 1985.
Tuesday, Oct. 19:
Interdisciplinary Colloquium. The interdisciplinary lecture series will be renamed in honor of Malcolm Renfrew. Jean’ne Shreeve, professor of chemistry, will speak about Renfrew’s career and contributions. Others also will share thoughts and comments about Renfrew and have an opportunity to speak with him. The event takes place in the Idaho Commons Whitewater Room and is sponsored by the University Office of Research and Economic Development and the University Honors Program.
Malcolm Renfrew with a Pine Siskin finch.
"What an example about how to care about your town, your workplace and everybody in it. That’s what we honor.”