Campus News

Pioneering engineer Eli Ruckenstein dies at 95

Eli Ruckenstein at a blackboard.

Eli Ruckenstein was one of the most influential chemical engineers of his era, as well as one of UB’s most renowned faculty members. Photo: Frank Miller


Published October 2, 2020

“Without question, he distinguished himself as one of the most eminent faculty members in the history of our institution, and one of the most eminent scientists the world has ever known. ”
President Satish K. Tripathi

Eli Ruckenstein, a UB faculty member for nearly 50 years who was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science for his groundbreaking research in chemical engineering and other fields, passed away Sept. 30. He was 95.

Lauded for his prolific and imaginative research, Ruckenstein, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus, was one of the most influential chemical engineers of his era, as well as one of UB’s most renowned faculty members.

“Dr. Ruckenstein was a world-renowned scientist whose achievements revolutionized chemical engineering and had a profound impact on a wide range of other fields — from applied mathematics and computing to cancer research,” said President Satish K. Tripathi. “He was held in the highest regard here at UB, and globally, for his limitless intellectual energy, innovation and creativity, as well as his astonishing breadth of scientific knowledge. Without question, he distinguished himself as one of the most eminent faculty members in the history of our institution, and one of the most eminent scientists the world has ever known.”

Kemper Lewis, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said Ruckenstein represented the very best of UB and epitomized the university’s mission of academic excellence and making a positive impact on the world.

“Put simply, Eli Ruckenstein exemplified what it means to be an engineer. He was inquisitive, thought-provoking and tireless in his pursuit of knowledge, always with the goal of pushing scientific discovery into new and boundless directions,” Lewis said. “His legacy and impact are globally renowned, and he will be dearly missed.”

Born in 1925 in Botosani, a small agricultural town in northern Romania, Ruckenstein started school at age 7, but at 14 was expelled due to anti-Semitic laws.

The Jewish community responded by organizing a private high school where he excelled. In his last two years there, although he was compelled to perform forced labor six days a week, 12 hours a day, he managed to study independently, developing a love of mathematics and a penchant for self-teaching, which continued throughout his life.

His outstanding test scores earned him a spot in the chemical engineering program at the prestigious Polytechnic Institute in Bucharest, where he matriculated in 1944. There, he continued self-teaching, relying more on his own intellectual curiosity and the library than on formal classes. This approach, combined with an extraordinary memory, fostered a diverse and encyclopedic knowledge of the literature in chemical engineering and related fields, which became legendary among students and colleagues.

In 1948, he married Velina Rothstein, a chemist. Ruckenstein called his marriage “the best thing I have ever done.” The couple was married for more than seven decades.

After completing his doctoral degree in 1949 with distinction, he was hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Polytechnic Institute, a remarkable achievement given that he was not a member of the Communist Party. However, earning a PhD at the time required being subjected to indoctrination and passing an exam on Marxism-Leninism. As a result, he defended his PhD thesis in 1966, after that requirement was lifted and he had already authored more than 100 scientific papers.

He won numerous important scientific awards in Romania, including the Prize of the Ministry of Education for research on turbulent heat and mass transfer (1958); the Prize of the Ministry of Education for education (1961); the “Gheorghe Spacu” Prize for Research in the Surface Phenomena Field awarded by the Romanian Academy (1964); and The Prize of the Ministry of Education for research in distillation (1964). In 1993, he was awarded a “Doctor Honoris Causa” by the Polytechnic Institute of Bucharest.

Before 1958, Romanian scientists could not publish in most Western journals. After this restriction was lifted, and the broader scientific community became aware of Ruckenstein’s seminal contributions, he was invited to spend six weeks at University College and Imperial College in London. He was later invited to visit Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Ruckenstein then took a position as a tenured full professor at the University of Delaware, where he stayed until 1973, greatly expanding his research interests as he gained access to a wealth of scientific literature and resources that had been unavailable to him in Bucharest. It was also, however, a period of great personal challenge, as Ruckenstein and his wife were forced to leave their two teenage children behind in Romania. Only after two years, and extraordinary efforts, were the children able to join them in the U.S.

Today, his son, Andrei, is a theoretical physicist and chair of the Department of Physics at Boston University. His daughter, Lelia, a former book editor and literary critic, is now a legal research associate.

In 1973, Ruckenstein was recruited to UB as Faculty Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In 1981, he was named SUNY Distinguished Professor, and he remained an extraordinarily productive member of the faculty for the rest of his life, authoring more than 900 additional journal publications, continuing long past his formal retirement in 2011. He authored roughly 50 papers after his 90th birthday, including a dozen in 2019 and several more this year.

For more than 45 years, Ruckenstein played a major role in the growth and development of what is now the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at UB. He brought national attention to the department, mentored dozens of students, researchers and young faculty members, and provided advice to generations of department chairs.

He also became legendary for his questions and comments at department seminars. For nearly any topic a seminar speaker might be addressing, Ruckenstein might say something like: “In the 1970s, we considered that problem and ….” Often, he would provide a profound insight, sometimes opening a whole new research direction for the speaker.

During his five decades in the U.S., Ruckenstein received countless honors for his groundbreaking contributions across many fields of research, most notably the National Medal of Science, which he received in a White House ceremony in 1999. Ruckenstein was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1990 and received the Founders Award from the Academy in 2004, an honor bestowed on a single engineer each year across all disciplines.

In 2012, Ruckenstein was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. From the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, he won the Alpha Chi Sigma Award for his work in transport phenomena, the Walker Award for his work in catalysis, and the Founders Award for his overall contributions to science. From the American Chemical Society, he received the Kendall Award for his research in colloids and interfaces, the Langmuir Lecture Award for his contributions to macromolecules, the Schoellkopf Medal for his work in supported metal catalysts, and the Murphree Award in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry.

He was given the Humboldt Award by Germany for his work in surfactants and the Creativity Award by the National Science Foundation for his work in biomolecules.

Ruckenstein was honored with numerous invited appointments and visiting professorships around the world. A fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, he was named by the institute as one of 50 Chemical Engineers of the “Foundation Age” of chemical engineering.

UB has recognized Ruckenstein’s contributions with the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal, UB’s highest honor, as well as the Dean’s Award for Engineering Achievement and the Walter P. Cooke Award. Since 2009, the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering has hosted an annual Ruckenstein Lecture.

From 2009 to 2019, Ruckenstein worked with former students and colleagues to publish eight volumes in which he organized his most important contributions in different areas over the decades. Their titles highlight the scope and breadth of his diverse scientific contributions in areas ranging from thermodynamics of solutions to nanodispersion to concentrated emulsion polymerization and many others.

Ruckenstein was also known among colleagues and friends for being an extraordinarily driven yet compassionate human being. While intensely focused on his research and dedicated to the success of his students and colleagues, he was deeply concerned with broader issues, including world history and philosophy.

He is survived by his wife, Velina, his son Andrei and daughter Lelia, their respective spouses, Shelagh Leahy and James O’Malley, and two grandchildren, Olivia and Leo Ruckenstein.


You may be interested in reading a chapter devoted to the inspirational life of the late Professor Eli Ruckenstein in the following book:

Deborah Chung