An appreciation of Professor Phyllis Brown (1924-2015): a path less traveled

Professor Phyllis Brown (1924-2015)
Professor Phyllis Brown (1924-2015)

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest that you reap but by the seeds that you plant”  Robert Louis Stevenson.

Professor Phyllis Brown passed away on July 8th, 2015. She was a pioneer in the field of separation science and the application to biological and clinical samples. She was a very well- known and popular member of the analytical community. She was also the recipient of the 2006 EAS Award for Outstanding Achievements in Separation Science. Professor Brown came to achieve her stellar career in scientific research by taking a non-traditional route and I have outlined it here.

Professor Brown started her higher education at Simmons College. After her marriage, she moved to the Washington DC area as her husband had enlisted in the Navy. She transferred to George Washington University (GWU) and received her BS in chemistry in 1944. They then had 4 children and she spent many years raising them and participating in organizations such as the parent teacher association. She eventually decided to return to school and received a PhD in Chemistry from Brown University in 1968, 24 years after receiving her BS. Her education continued with postdoctoral studies in the pharmacology section of Brown University: these clinical investigations led to her introduction to some of the earliest commercial versions of HPLC.

She joined the faculty of the Chemistry department of the University of Rhode Island (URI) in 1973, received promotion to full professor in 1980 and after retirement in 2001 remained emeritus. The major focus of her research was the application of separation science to biological and clinical areas of interest, especially determinations of nucleotides and nucleosides. She often spoke of how exciting it was to be actively involved with HPLC when it was rapidly evolving and how exhilarating it was to be able to gain quantitative insights into biological systems. In later years, research studies were performed on CE as well as HPLC-ELSD, HPLC-MS and HPLC-FTIR. While at URI, she performed sabbaticals at Hebrew University, the University of California at San Diego and Wellesley College. Professor Brown taught many undergraduate and graduate level courses and encouraged students from different disciplines, to explore the analytical sciences. This year, the Chemistry department will depart Pastore Hall and move to a brand new building, “the Richard E Beaupre Center for Chemical and Forensic Science” and she was absolutely thrilled about it.

Professor Brown was the author of over 200 scientific articles and wrote/edited 5 books on HPLC and/or CE (as well as one book on caregiving). For 25 years she was an editor of the Advances in Chromatography series and many other publications. She received many awards for her scientific achievements: a NIH Special Research Fellowship, a Union Carbide Fellowship, a Brown University fellowship, the Governor’s Medal for Contributions to Science and Technology in the State of Rhode Island, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Tswett Medal in Chromatography, the Dal Nogare Award in Chromatography, the Scholarly Achievement Award for Excellence in Research at URI, a Brown University Citation for Outstanding Research in the Field of Chemistry, the 2004 Connecticut Separation Science Council award and the 2006 EAS award for Achievements in Separation Science.

Professor Brown was uniquely aware of the boundaries that existed for those already established in careers to return to further education. At URI, she was a key player in establishing a program with Pfizer which enabled employees to pursue a higher degree. It started when she elected to teach an analytical course at the Pfizer site in Groton CT: an enrollment of 40 students confirmed the interest in such an endeavor. A formal agreement between URI, Pfizer and the State of Connecticut Board of Education was established in 2002. From this program, approximately 50 students have studied and received an MS degree and several achieved a PhD.

She was also well known as a lifelong advocate for women in science. On a personal level, she instilled in many women the need to aim higher, be involved in designing their career and negotiating their reimbursement. At the same time, on a professional level, she encouraged discussion within various scientific communities. Professor Brown loved her career; she simply thought that more women should be encouraged to participate.

Phyllis Brown was a wonderful mentor: you could not ask for more. She possessed a perfect balance of being nurturing, encouraging and supportive in addition to impatient, demanding, driven and relentless with respect to the process of experimentation. Each morning, she would arrive fresh from the gym or the swimming pool and raring to go. She was exceptionally smart and had knowledge of many fields of science. The laboratory had a lot of camaraderie: her fabulous sense of humor and loud laughter were infusive. There was emphasis on attending conferences, giving and observing presentations, participating in the greater scientific community and networking: she wanted her students to graduate with professional as well as scientific skills. She took great interest in the well-being of students with personal milestones and professional achievements being very well celebrated. To Phyllis Brown, each student was an individual on their own unique path: she was selfless in her focus on your personal progression as a scientist. The professional achievements of her laboratory were a result of her brilliance and the deep personal investment she made in each one of us.

After retiring, Phyllis was a devoted caregiver to her beloved husband Bert who passed away a few years ago. They were literally lifelong friends and married for 65 years. She dedicated herself to achieving the highest quality of life for him. She will be profoundly missed by many people from her professional and personal life. Her remaining loving family includes her 4 children and their spouses, her 9 grandchildren and their spouses/partners and 10 great grandchildren.

Christina S. Robb
Analytical Chemistry
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station
New Haven, CT.