Mst Logo


Neal R. Amundson:
How he has transformed the scene

"The Father of Modern Chemical Engineering"
Today, nearly every aspect of modern life is influenced in some way by the work of chemical engineers. These scientists have a hand in developing everything from atomic science and petrochemicals to drugs, plastics, paper, fertilizers and foods.

But chemical engineering didn't always have the impact on technology and innovation that it does today. Neal Amundson, the "father of modern chemical engineering," is widely credited with transforming chemical engineering from a qualitative, research-focused discipline to an applied science that includes physical sciences, engineering, applied mathematics, computer science and biology.

Amundson was born in St. Paul, Minn., in 1916, the only child of a pipefitter and homemaker. He grew up in a small one-bedroom house on Wesley Ave. (now Hubbard Ave.) just a few blocks east of Snelling Ave. After graduating from St. Paul Central High School in 1933, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota. A three-time graduate of the University of Minnesota, Amundson received his B.S. (1937) and M.S. (1941) in chemical engineering and a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1945.

200 Papers, 52 Ph.D. Students and An Infinite Influence
At only 33 years old, Amundson was named Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Minnesota, a position he held for 25 years, until 1974.

Using the criteria "I never hired anybody if I thought that I was smarter than they were," he transformed the University's relatively obscure chemical engineering department into the top-ranked program in the country. He hired individuals with a wide variety of backgrounds and scientific interests — everything from microbiology and mathematics to chemistry — to create a synergistic, interdisciplinary team that made enormous contributions to the field. This approach, which is so common in universities today, started with Amundson.

In addition to his contributions to academia, Amundson made major contributions in research, authoring more than 200 articles and five books. His research and mathematical modeling led to deeper understanding of complex chemical processes and systems. This, in turn, resulted in many improvements — particularly in safety and operating efficiency — to the design and execution of chemical processes, including chemical reactors, coal combustion, atmospheric science and more. Amundson even developed a physical and mathematic model for Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine, that allows these boats to stay cool and safe following a power failure.

Among a lifetime of accomplishments, Amundson was particularly proud of the 52 Ph.D. students that he guided and mentored over the years. He was known for taking a personal interest in the students, many of whom went on to achieve prominent positions in universities, corporations and as members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Amundson joined the University of Houston's Chemical Engineering department in the mid 1970s, and helped establish it as one of the top 10 in the country by the 1980s. He continued to teach and influence students there for nearly 25 years. Amundson died of heart failure in 2011 at age 95.

A Lasting Legacy
Today's chemical engineering students at the University of Minnesota listen to lectures in a building with a familiar name — Amundson Hall. In 1979, the building that houses the chemical engineering was named thus in recognition of the magnitude of Amundson's contributions to research and the university.

In addition, Amundson received numerous prestigious awards throughout his lifetime. He was elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering (1970), National Academy of Sciences (1992) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1992). He received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Guadalajara and Northwestern University. He also received the highest faculty honors awarded by the Universities of Minnesota and Houston.

As Andreas Acrivos and Dan Luss wrote in their Biographical Memoir for the National Academy of Sciences, "Seldom has an individual exerted such a major influence in the development of an important field as was done by Neal Amundson to chemical engineering."