William Dalzell, 1936-2021

Tributes paid to lecturer who pushed his students to be ‘true detectives’ in helping companies solve their problems

June 24, 2021
William Dalzell, 1936-2021

A leading chemical engineer who lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for more than 20 years has died.

William Dalzell was born in Chatham, New York, in 1936. Although neither of his parents had finished high school and many of his fellow pupils attended sporadically because of their farming responsibilities, he secured a place at MIT to study chemical engineering in 1954.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Dr Dalzell would recall later. “There were no computers, no internet, and no one visited college campuses before applying. I perused college catalogues in the library and thought it might be cool to be an engineer – whatever an engineer was.”

Although he had earned enough money while at high school to pay for college, Dr Dalzell gave some to his family when his father went on strike and therefore had to work in the MIT dining service and on construction jobs during the summer throughout his degree. He initially felt out of his depth in both mathematical and writing skills and suspected that he “would have collected more flags than one sees at a regatta” if a system of fifth-week flags for bad marks had been in place. Yet he soon caught up and went on to complete undergraduate (1958), master’s (1960) and doctoral degrees (1965) at MIT.

After a year as a postdoc at Imperial College London, Dr Dalzell returned to MIT as an assistant professor for four years. He left the academy to work at Polaroid for 26 years, rising to the position of senior manager, although he always remained in close touch with the institute. In 1997, therefore, he rejoined MIT as a lecturer in chemical engineering and would remain there until retirement in 2018. He also served as the environmental health and safety coordinator and station director of the David H. Koch School of Chemical Engineering Practice, overseeing a programme that gave postgraduate students the opportunity to attend “stations” all over the world, helping companies such as Mitsubishi Chemical and GlaxoSmithKline address complex challenges.

In this latter role, said Paula Hammond, head of MIT’s department of chemical engineering, Dr Dalzell “guided a generation of our students through their pivotal first encounters with real-world engineering. He pushed them to apply their understanding of fundamental phenomena and be true detectives, guidance that his alumni have told me continues to serve them well in their careers.”

Dr Dalzell died of cancer on 13 April and is survived by his wife Patricia, a daughter, a son and four grandchildren.


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