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Obituary for Francis T. Bonner

Francis Bonner

Francis Truesdale Bonner died early in the morning of Monday, February 15, 2016, at the age of 94. A physical chemist, he spent most of his career as a professor at SUNY Stony Brook, before its name was changed to Stony Brook University. He was the founding Chairman of Stony Brook's distinguished Department of Chemistry.

Francis Bonner was born in December 1921 in Salt Lake City, Utah, the youngest of seven children. His father, Walter Bonner, was Head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Utah from 1914 until 1945. His mother, Grace Gaylord Bonner, had earlier been a teacher in Nebraska and maintained the household at a high cultural level, including the study of music and foreign languages. The Bonner siblings studied at the University of Utah and went on to distinguished scientific careers at Cal Tech, Penn, UC San Diego, and other institutions.

Francis took his undergraduate degree from Utah in 1942 and proceeded to Yale for doctoral work in chemistry. His main advisor there was the well-known physical chemist Herbert Spencer Harned. At that time, in the middle of the Second World War, highly-trained scientists were in great demand. Accordingly, Francis entered an accelerated program, taking an MS in 1944 and a PhD in 1945, with a dissertation on the thermodynamic properties of carbonic acid in aqueous solutions of sodium chloride.

Already in 1944, meanwhile, he found himself at Columbia University working on the Manhattan Project, a top-secret program aiming to realize the possibility, already known for several decades, of releasing atomic energy in a weapon of unheard-of destructive power. As a member of the Special Alloy Metals team, he worked on the development of metallic materials suitable for use as diffusion barriers for uranium hexafluoride and on the interaction of these materials with uranium hexafluoride itself and also with other corrosive gases. Like many Manhattan Project scientists, he was generally aware of the project's goal, but when the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, he was surprised at the way the weapon had actually taken form. In the following period, Francis had a leading role in the Association of Manhattan Project Scientists (AMPS), concerned with entrusting this new discovery to civilian authority and with containing its dangerous potential within political and humanitarian boundaries.

During those days in New York, Francis met Evelyn Hershkowitz, a Hunter College graduate then working for the Manhattan Project. They married in January 1946 and then moved to Oak Ridge TN, where they both worked at Clinton Laboratory, soon renamed as Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In 1947 they moved to Long Island, where Francis took a position with the brand-new Brookhaven National Laboratory. This environment was entirely to his liking, but problems emerged with FBI demands for security clearances. Francis himself came under no suspicion, but several colleagues, who afterward remained lifelong friends, fell afoul of the emerging McCarthyite agenda. As these colleagues left Brookhaven, Francis took a position as Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College. In 1956 he took up a one-year Carnegie Fellowship at Harvard, and after that a consultancy with Arthur D. Little in Cambridge. Those days also saw the publication of his textbook, co-authored with Melba Phillips, Principles of Physical Science  (Addison-Wesley, 1957, 2nd ed. 1971).

In late 1957 Francis received an offer to join the brand-new State University College on Long Island, located in Oyster Bay transferred soon to a site in Stony Brook donated by the philanthropist Ward Melville. He accepted the offer and became the first Chair of Chemistry. He took a leading role in recruiting faculty in related areas, especially Physics. His main focus, however, was on building a new chemistry department, and he recruited a youthful team that quickly gained international recognition. In those days, academic talent and academic positions were both relatively abundant, and the State of New York contributed substantial resources to the project. On the ground, however, quarrels emerged among the new institution's leaders over direction, identity and style. Francis took his part in those quarrels while maintaining his priority of building his department. His many new hires included Paul Lauterbur in 1963, then engaged in research on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) which resulted afterward in the now universally-used technology of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), for which Lauterbur received the Nobel Prize in 2003.

With his family, Francis spent the academic year 1964-65 with an NSF Senior Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Centre d'Etudes Nucleaires at Saclay, near Paris. He then returned to the chairmanship at Stony Brook. When he stepped down in 1970 the Department had grown from a small handful of faculty and staff into one of the most important and productive units in the discipline, housed in a handsome, spacious, brand-new, state-of-the-art building.

Francis returned to the laboratory, mentoring graduate students and authoring and co-authoring articles on nitrogen chemistry, including the small, toxic molecule nitric oxide, which has a role in mammalian physiology. His co-authors included the British scientists Geoffrey Stedman and Martin N. Hughes. From 1983 to 1986 he served as Dean for International Programs, developing and originating a range of programs for teaching and research, and traveling to many destinations in Europe, East Asia, and Latin America. He then returned to full-time teaching and research until his retirement at the age of 70 in 1992.

Francis and Evelyn had three children, Michael (b. 1952), now of Ann Arbor, MI; Alisa (b. 1955), who died in 1974; and Rachel (b. 1957), now of Kfar Tavor, Israel. Evelyn died in 1990. As Francis entered retirement soon afterward, he continued to do consulting work, but devoted himself mainly to non-scientific pursuits, especially music. He had played the violin since his Utah childhood, and had taken up the viola in his early 40s. Now he played in a variety of venues and groups, and in this way he met Jane Carlberg, a violinist from Andover, CT. The two married in 1994 and remained together in the waterside house in Setauket, LI that the Bonners had owned since 1972.

Francis Bonner enjoyed hiking and bicycling and had a deep love of nature. His many friends appreciated his sense of humor, which remained with him right to the end. He spent the last six months of his life at Sunrise Senior Living, East Setauket, and died peacefully of pneumonia at Stony Brook Hospital. A memorial service will be held at noon on Sunday, March 6, at the Bates House in Setauket.


[Michael Bonner, February 17, 2016]