Elmer L. Gaden, Father of Biochemical Engineering, Dies

Elmer L. Gaden, former professor and chair of chemical engineering at Columbia Engineering and an alumnus of the School, died Saturday, March 10, of congestive heart failure in Charlottesville, VA. Widely known in the field as the “father of biochemical engineering,” Gaden was 88 at the time of his death.
Read the story about Elmer Gaden from the 1971 issue of Chemical and Engineering News (subscription required to view)
 
Gaden began his research in biochemical engineering at the Engineering School, where he received three degrees in chemical engineering—a B.S. in 1944, an M.S. in 1947, and a Ph.D. in 1949. His groundbreaking dissertation focused on providing the optimal amount of oxygen to allow greater fermentation energy for penicillin mold to grow and multiply more rapidly. This research formed the basis for mass production of a wide range of antibiotics, beginning with penicillin, and it was this work for which Gaden earned in 2009 the prestigious Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, which was established jointly by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and Ohio University and is bestowed biennially. Gaden’s interest in harnessing biological processes to produce chemicals led him to publish widely and to found the international research journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering, which he edited for 25 years.
 
“He was the first to develop and organize biotechnology as an engineering practice,” said Professor Sanat Kumar, chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering. “He had a very big presence at the School, he was a big influence on the department, and is the reason why we have an extremely strong biochemical presence.”
 
Kumar met Gaden five years ago when the late professor attended an event at the School to launch a lectureship series in his name. Said Kumar, “He was already in his 80s, he was frail, but you could tell, clearly proud and touched by this.” The Elmer L. Gaden Lectureship is hosted by the Chemical Engineering Department and brings to campus leading researchers and scientists as guest speakers each fall.  
 
A Brooklyn native, Gaden served in the U.S. Navy during WW II and spent one year as a researcher at Pfizer. The majority of his career, however, was spent in academia. He was a professor at Columbia Engineering for 25 years (from 1949 to 1974), during which time he was a teacher, researcher, and department chair, and founder of the program in biochemical engineering.
Elmer Gaden in a 2009 photo
 
In 1974, he was elected to the NAE. That same year, Gaden was named dean of the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Business Administration at the University of Vermont. In 1979, he joined the engineering faculty at the University of Virginia as the Wills Johnson Professor of Chemical Engineering, where he remained until his retirement in 1994.
 
Gaden received other numerous honors and awards throughout his impressive career. In addition to the Russ Prize, considered by many as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineering, Gaden received the Egleston Medal for distinguished engineering achievement from Columbia in 1986, an honorary doctorate in 1987 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and, in 1988, the Founders Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. He also was honored with Columbia’s “Great Teacher Award” for outstanding teaching and the “Mac Wade Award” from the students of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science for service to the School and its students. Gaden was also a fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
 
In retirement, according to an obituary published in The Daily Progress onMarch 12, Gaden was a volunteer, teaching illiterate adults how to read. He also kept busy remodeling his home, building model planes and ships, and sharing his wife’s love of nature. He is survived by Jennifer, his wife of 48 years, daughter, Barbara, and sons David and Paul. He also is survived by two grandchildren.

A service for Gaden will be held Saturday, March 24 at 2:00 p.m. at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA.

— Written by Melanie Farmer 

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