Britton Chance: 1913-2010
Nov. 24, 2010 — The optics community lost a friend and elder statesman last week. On the morning of Tuesday, November 16, Britton Chance died quietly in the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania. He was 97.
Dr. Chance had a long, celebrated career. He attended the University of Pennsylvania for both undergraduate and graduate studies, and in 1940 was awarded a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry; he later received a second Ph.D. and a D.Sc. from Cambridge University. During the 1940s, he was named the second director of the Johnson Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania. The following decade, he started and became Chair of the Department of Biophysics and Physical Biochemistry, later renamed the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.
The list of honors and awards bestowed upon him is extensive, almost intimidating: Member of the United States National Academy of Sciences since 1952; Recipient of the National Medal of Science in 1974; Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Medical Sciences; Foreign Member of the Royal Society (London); and many more.
But Dr. Chance will be best remembered for his insatiable curiosity, unflagging energy and many, diverse research interests. He focused on enzyme structure and function early in his career, aided in the development of radar during World War II, and later employed phosphorous NMR and optical spectroscopy and fluorometry to explore metabolic control phenomena in living tissues: using infrared light to characterize the properties of breast tumors, for example. Even after he “retired” to become emeritus in the early 1980s he continued to break new ground, launching the field of optical diagnostics the following decade.
My brother, David, studied under Dr. Chance. Even in the 1990s, when “BC” was in his late seventies and early eighties, David found him to be vivacious, commanding, “always the smartest guy in the room.”
And always more interested in stimulating conversation than in any kind of academic pecking order, a trait that made him an especially effective mentor. “It didn’t matter if you were an undergraduate, a graduate student or a full professor,” David said, “he treated everyone the same. That was empowering.”
Dr. Chance had an abiding passion for sailing – among his many achievements he was an Olympic gold medalist, winning for the United States at the 1952 games in Helsinki. He kept boats in New Jersey and Florida and often invited students and colleagues to join him on excursions.
His love of the sea never ebbed, even in his later years. It almost certainly helped to keep him young, to keep him sharp. He remained engaged and scientifically active until the end.
- The analysis and measurement of the fluorescence emitted by a source. Fluorometric processes are more sensitive than light absorption methods and are rapidly being applied in medical and biological fields.
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