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Robert Madix, expert in the mysteries of catalysis, has died

A respected colleague, scientist, and mentor, Madix earned professional acclaim for his detailed understanding of the remarkable powers of catalysts.
Portrait of Professor Bob Madix
Bob Madix, 1938-2023 | Photo courtesy of Stanford Chemical Engineering

Robert J. “Bob” Madix, the Charles Lee Powell Professor, Emeritus, at the Stanford School of Engineering and highly respected professor of both chemical engineering and chemistry at Stanford and, later, Harvard, died at his home in Palo Alto, California, on May 25, 2023. He was 84. The cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Madix joined the Stanford faculty in the fledgling Department of Chemical Engineering in 1965 where he would remain until 2004, when he moved to Harvard to be closer to his wife, the chemist Cynthia Friend. He and Friend enjoyed an extended long-distance relationship and research partnership until he joined her at Harvard in 2005 as a senior research fellow in the Paulson School of Engineering.

Professionally, Madix was widely considered a “major force” in the surface chemistry of catalysis. Catalysts expedite or enhance chemical reactions between other materials without being consumed in the reactions themselves. Catalysis is critical in chemical and energy production, pharmaceuticals, and other fields. Madix sought to understand the fundamental science of how and why catalysts perform as they do, and how they can be enhanced.

“Bob was driven to understand the nature of surface-active sites. He did so in two ways, by choice of appropriate chemical probe molecules and by development of a new experimental technique he’d developed known as temperature programmed reaction spectroscopy – or TPRS,” recalled longtime colleague Curtis Frank, a professor emeritus in the Department of Chemical Engineering. “While relatively simple in concept, this was transformative in its impact. It became a very popular tool for interrogating surface reactivity.”

Creative and charismatic

As a colleague and a teacher, Madix was described as charismatic, with a unique creativity and an insistence on excellence. He was a standout baseball player as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois and lifelong guitar player who formed a band with several Stanford friends known as “Bullfish and the Crab.”

As a doctoral candidate at Berkeley, learning under eventual Stanford professor Michel Boudart, Madix recognized the importance of catalysis in historical terms. Nothing less than America’s industrial and technological leadership would hinge on science’s ability to understand and perfect catalysis. Madix was at the forefront of that pursuit.

Upon earning his doctorate at Berkeley in 1964, Madix undertook postdoctoral research at the Max Planck Institute in Goettingen, Germany, courtesy of a National Science Foundation Fellowship. During this yearlong tenure between Berkeley and Stanford, Madix toured Europe’s leading labs and observed the emerging technological advances in surface chemistry.

“Bob was a key link that connected the old guard faculty with the ‘young Turks’ who followed him into the department, Bud Homsy, Curt Frank, and myself,” recalled colleague and friend Channing Robertson, a professor emeritus in the department. “It was very much like mixing oil and water, but Bob reduced the ‘surface tension’ that ultimately congealed us and from which arose a department now considered one of the best in the world.”

His career, however, was not all smooth sailing. Due to his involvement in Vietnam War protesting, his promotion to full professor in 1977 involved an unusual and “tumultuous” tenure review by a special provost’s committee. That professional milestone successfully secured, however, Madix would go on to become a senior member of the department, where he served as chair from 1983 to 1987.

A role model for nonconformity

As a teacher, Madix was greatly admired for his engaging Socratic style and rigorous teaching and research coaching. In 1969, he was named a Ford Foundation Fellow at Stanford, teaching an innovative introductory chemistry course while simultaneously building a world-class research lab.

“Students in his research group could always count on his undivided attention to their projects with Bob’s training likely to have been highly influential on their careers,” Frank remembered. “The community of surface science and catalysis has lost a great scientist.”

“During Bob’s stint as chair in the ’80s, he hosted a discussion group to ponder deeply important and profound topics,” Robertson recalled. “We solved many of the world problems, including our own. Bob was a role model for nonconformity. This is what made him so special.”

Madix’s work was recognized by many professional awards and honors, including election to the National Academy of Engineering, a Humboldt Senior Research Award (1978), North American Catalysis Society Paul H. Emmett Award in Fundamental Catalysis (1983), ACS Arthur Adamson Award in Surface Chemistry (1997), IPMI Henry J. Albert Award (1997), ACS Somorjai Award for Innovation in Catalysis (2010), and AVS Gaede-Langmuir Award (2022). Likewise, he was a Fellow of the American Chemical Society and of the American Vacuum Society.

Athletics and academics

Robert James Madix was born June 22, 1938, in Beech Grove, Indiana, but spent much of his early life in Champaign, Illinois. As a varsity baseball player at the University of Illinois, Madix won both the Big 10 Honor Award and the David Huff Award at the University of Illinois, which recognized his combination of athletic and academic excellence. Scouted by professional baseball teams, Madix chose instead the more pragmatic – but no less rewarding – path in chemical engineering.

Madix was married three times. He and his third wife, Cynthia Friend, were married 36 years until his death. She survives him, as do both of his previous wives. Madix is also survived by three sons and a daughter: Bradley Madix and his wife, Pam, of Nashville, Tennessee; David E. Madix of Seattle; Kaella Madix of San Francisco; Evan Madix of Boise, Idaho; stepdaughter Ayse Gurdal-Friend of Cambridge, Massachusetts; four grandchildren, Austin Ohel, Danielle Madix, Beau Wilson, and Asher Wilson; and one great-granddaughter, Mira Ohel. Madix is likewise survived by his sister, Betty Gorenflo of Orlando, Florida; and his brother-in-law, Randolph Friend of Dallas. He was predeceased by a brother, James Madix.

A celebration of his life is being planned to be held in the Stanford area. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in the name of Robert James Madix be made to the donor’s choice of: The University of Illinois Foundation; Stanford University, Department of Chemical Engineering; the Southern Poverty Law Center; or the ALS Association.

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