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Charles Wilke, co-founder of UC Berkeley's Department of Chemical Engineering, dies at age 86

Charles Wilke
Charles Wilke (Courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

– Charles R. Wilke, one of the founders of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and a pioneer in the field of biochemical engineering, died on Oct. 2 at his home in El Cerrito. He was 86 and had been battling cancer.

Wilke established an international reputation in the 1950s as a leading scholar in the field of diffusion and mass transfer. He then shifted directions in his research in the early 1960s to help establish the budding field of biochemical engineering. According to his UC Berkeley colleague Harvey Blanch, "Wilke's early studies on the kinetics of microbial growth and gas-liquid mass transfer provided the engineering underpinnings for the revolution in molecular biology that was to come."

Born in Ohio, Wilke put himself through school at the University of Dayton by playing trombone in a dance orchestra that he organized. He subsequently received his M.S. from Washington State University and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. After brief stints with the Union Oil Company of California and Washington state, he joined the UC Berkeley faculty as an instructor of chemistry in 1946.

He rose through the ranks, becoming a full professor in 1953, with a shift in appointment to chemical engineering in 1949. He chaired the Division of Chemical Engineering from 1953 to 1956, and when the Department of Chemical Engineering was established in 1957, he became its first chair - a position he held until 1963. He was responsible for guiding the growth of the department from five faculty members to 16 and played a key role in making the chemical engineering department at UC Berkeley preeminent at a time when the discipline was evolving toward the social and economic importance it enjoys today. He became emeritus professor in 1987.

The author of more than 150 scholarly papers, Wilke taught hundreds of undergraduate students and mentored more than 100 M.S. and Ph.D. students. He also served for several years as assistant to the chancellor for academic affairs and was active on many campus committees. In addition to his university appointment, he was a faculty investigator at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Beyond the campus community, he served the profession as director of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and as a member of several advisory and editorial boards.

His work was recognized with the highest awards of his profession, including election to the National Academy of Engineering and the Colburn and Walker Awards of the AIChE. In 1983, he was singled out as one of 30 eminent chemical engineers on the occasion of the AIChE's 75th Diamond Jubilee Celebration.

Wilke's wife of 57 years, Bernice, died last March. He is survived by his sister-in-law, Mary Arnett, of Kensington.

His friends, students and colleagues are establishing an endowed chair in chemical engineering in his honor. Memorial gifts to the Wilke Chair may be made payable to the UC Berkeley Foundation and sent to 420 Latimer Hall, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-1460. A memorial celebration of his life will be held at 1 p.m. at UC Berkeley's Faculty Club on Sunday, Nov. 16.

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