Skip to content Skip to navigation

The not-so-retiring retirement of Channing Robertson

How an unassuming professor of chemical engineering helped save lives, change forensic science and bring down Big Tobacco.

The not-so-retiring retirement of Channing Robertson

February 28, 2012

Fame is a rare thing for a chemical engineer, but Channing Robertson’s exalted reputation in the fields of medicine, law and engineering is about as close as it comes.

It begins in the late 1970s, with a phone call from a lawyer in California’s San Joaquin Valley – and Robertson’s subsequent discovery that he had an aptitude and appetite for delivering high-stakes explanations of scientific fact.

"I've never wanted to be a hired gun or professional witness," says Robertson, the newly emeritus former chair of chemical engineering at Stanford. "But, I love to be cross-examined. It keeps your mind alive."

The Dalkon Shield

The lawyer who first put Robertson in a witness box, Stanford alum Anthony Klein, was representing women injured by a contraceptive product called the Dalkon Shield, an intrauterine device (IUD). IUDs are attached to a string for removal, but the Dalkon Shield's string, Klein told Robertson, had been made not of a single strand, but of multiple fibers.

"He asked me 'What do you think?'" Robertson remembers, "and I said, 'That's probably not a good idea. The uterus is normally sterile, and doesn't have a strong immune response. Multiple strands could host bacteria and lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, gangrene and loss of extremities, or worse.' And he says, 'Well, that's exactly what's happening.'"

Klein asked Robertson to provide expert testimony in his case. Robertson agreed, provided he could first test the devices himself. With the help of some Stanford Chemical Engineering undergraduates, Robertson demonstrated to his own satisfaction that the multifilament string was indeed 'wicking' bacteria into the vulnerable environs of the uterus.

Impact of Robertson's testimony

The Dalkon Shield was marketed for just three years, between 1971 and 1974. But during that time, in the US alone it caused at least 18 deaths, an estimated 66,000 miscarriages and untold numbers of infections and cases of infertility.

A. H. Robins had for years denied any culpability, and avoided trial where it could by settling with injured users. When cases did go to court, the awards against Robins rarely exceeded a few thousand dollars.

Robertson's clearly presented factual and technical evidence was highly persuasive, and Klein's clients were awarded a total of $33 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Their suit helped open the legal floodgates against A.H. Robins, and in short order the company racked up another $450 million in settlement and legal costs. Less than two years later, it was out of business for good.

Big Tobacco

Almost a decade later, Robertson tangled with a much larger foe: Big Tobacco.

It started with a question from Minnesota attorney Michael Ciresi: Why is the tobacco industry one of the nation's largest consumers of ammonia?

"Nicotine's a base molecule, like caffeine in coffee," Robertson recalls replying. "If you add ammonia, you raise the pH and 'uncharge' the molecule. Uncharged molecules go through biological membranes much faster. In essence, tobacco companies are helping smokers freebase nicotine."

Billion-dollar settlements

In 1997 Robertson, an acknowledged expert in the transfer of chemicals across biological boundaries, presented that chain of reasoning at the innocuously titled Minnesota Tobacco Trial. Ciresi was lead council for the State of Minnesota and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota in a suit against the major cigarette manufacturers.

The suit - one of the first in which a state, rather than an individual, had taken on the industry - was bitterly fought. But Robertson's explanation of how cigarettes were consciously engineered to be addictive, along with evidence presented by other experts on the industry's practice of marketing to children and tobacco's true impacts on health, was damning, leading in 1998 to a $6.5 billion settlement against Big Tobacco. That in turn provoked the record $206 billion Master National Settlement between the states and the tobacco industry brokered later that year - the largest legal settlement in U.S. history.

Thus Channing Robertson, the unassuming professor most happy in a classroom or a lab, found himself featured in Upside magazine's year 2000 list of "100 People Who Have Changed the World."

Read more: Channing Robertson timeline >>

Global treaty on tobacco

Expert testimony fundamentally appeals to him, says Robertson, "because it's terribly interesting, and you meet and work with fascinating people."

While he's careful to pick his battles, Robertson could not resist at least one more invitation when Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Prime Minister of Norway, called him in 1998 after being appointed Director General of the World Health Organization. Bruntland invited Robertson to join the framework group writing a global treaty on tobacco that is today one of the most-signed treaties in history.

"We're setting up labs, making them clean it up a little at a time," Robertson reports. "Over the years, we're going to force them to reduce the harm, to the point that, I suspect, they'll probably figure out something else to do for a business."

A shock for forensic science

Robertson's experience in discussing scientific issues in a judicial setting also led him to become a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Science, Technology and Law. Formed in 1999, the committee was charged with bringing the scientific and legal communities together to investigate issues such as the role of science in civil and criminal litigation, the use of human subjects in scientific trials and issues pertaining to science and national security.

In 2007, Robertson was the lone engineer invited to join a new subcommittee set up to investigate the state of forensic evidence and testimony in the United States. Its members spent the next two years researching the whole spectrum of common forensic techniques: iris scanning, DNA analysis, fingerprinting, blood spatters, pry marks, ballistics, image analysis and more. Their conclusions were disturbing. Only one of these techniques, DNA analysis, is based on a solid scientific foundation, they decided.

The rest, Robertson says, "are essentially empirical and based on individual judgment."

The committee's findings led to legislation pending in Congress to create a new federal agency to standardize forensic techniques and certify forensic labs across the nation.

All about teaching

Robertson says his public service is driven, at heart, by a love of teaching.

"I can go back into the classroom," he says, using the example of an environmental case he worked on, "and say, 'Imagine someone puts 37 million gallons of toxic waste into a hole in the ground. What do you think is going to happen to it? What kind of questions would you ask? How would you go about predicting what the emissions from that must have been when it's been covered up for 12 years?"

"Students," he adds, "just love that kind of forensic mystery."

Long one of the university's most popular teachers, Robertson is also a Bass University Fellow in Undergraduate Education and in 2009 was awarded the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Distinctive Contributions to Undergraduate Education. His legendary Introduction to Chemical Engineering course (E20) has been viewed on iTunes and YouTube by over 100,000 people.

Read more: Q & A with Channing Robertson on teaching >>

A full 'retirement'

This year is Robertson's first as an emeritus professor, though he is hardly retired. He maintains a full course load of teaching in the School of Engineering and continues to serve both the WHO and NAS committees.

On a personal level, he hopes to play piano a little more often, to fish and to ski with his wife Donna and to see more of his children and grandchildren. He's also leading a hiking trip for the Alumni Association to Spain next summer.

And then there is Theranos, the biomed startup founded in 2003 by Robertson's student Elizabeth Holmes when she was still an undergraduate and where he's now an active director.

"It's in the biomedical diagnostics arena," Robertson says. "And I think, if we're successful, we have the opportunity to change health care delivery as we know it."

Robertson caps that with a phrase apposite for a man who's accomplished so much and yet remains excited for what's still to come: "Stay tuned."