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Caltech Mourns Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus Fred C. Anson, 1933–2024

Published on Friday, June 21, 2024 | 4:39 am

Fred C. Anson (BS ’54), the Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, who served as chair of Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CCE) from 1984 to 1994, passed away on May 22. He was 91.

Anson was born February 17, 1933, in Los Angeles and was raised in Wilmar (what is now South San Gabriel), California, where as a boy he had a paper route for the Los Angeles Times. He was inspired by one of his teachers at Mark Keppel High School, Caltech alumnus J.B. Forster (BS ’27), to apply to the Institute. Anson later recalled that Forster would bring some of his promising students to Thursday evening lectures on campus and that he was able to attend a talk given by Robert A. Millikan, Caltech’s founding president. Anson was impressed. He matriculated in 1950 and received a scholarship offered only to paper carriers by the Times, covering Caltech’s $600-per-year tuition.

While an undergraduate, Anson discovered he had a special knack for chemistry and, in particular, enjoyed the analytical chemistry course offered sophomore year by Ernest Swift (PhD ’24). Anson would go on to conduct electroanalytical chemical research in Swift’s lab and worked at Harshaw Chemical Company near East Los Angeles during the summers. Standing six-feet, six-inches tall, Anson was also senior captain of Caltech’s 1954 basketball team, which won the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) championship despite the Institute not yet having a gymnasium in which they could practice.

After graduating, Anson earned a doctoral degree in chemistry from Harvard University in 1957 but returned the same year to Caltech as an instructor hired by then-CCE chair Linus Pauling (PhD ’25). Shortly after arriving back on campus, Anson started playing basketball with an informal team put together by biology professor Herschel Mitchell. One of the players on that team gave Anson a tip to try to meet a woman named Roxana who worked in what was then the General Library. Anson recalled that he “found it necessary to get an interlibrary loan, and met Roxana.” The two were married in 1959.

Anson spent the entirety of his career at Caltech. He was appointed assistant professor in 1958, associate professor in 1962, full professor in 1968, and the Gilloon Professor in 1995.

His research focused on the kinetics, mechanisms, and catalysis of electrode reactions. In particular, he was interested in understanding the behavior of reactants attached to the surface of electrodes. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “Among his numerous impactful studies, he elucidated the electrochemistry of heteropolymetallates and catalysts for the electroreduction of dioxygen to water”—a reaction that takes place at the cathode of a fuel cell, making it directly relevant to the development of renewable energy science and technology. During his lifetime he published more than 350 scientific papers.

“Fred was a consummate scholar whose groundbreaking work in electrochemistry has had a big impact on the course of inorganic and organic chemistry research,” says Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and the founding director of the Beckman Institute at Caltech. “I was lucky to be among his collaborators and friends.”

Anson served as the executive officer for chemistry from 1973 until 1977, a position he described as being responsible more on the academic side rather than the fiscal side of division operations. When Jimmy Carter became president of the United States and named Caltech’s fourth president, Harold Brown, as his secretary of defense, Anson served as chair of the search committee for Caltech’s next president, a duty that he took very seriously and which took as much as half of his time for a year and a half. Eventually, that committee selected Marvin L. Goldberger to be Caltech’s fifth president. Anson also served as chairman of the faculty for two years before being named division chair for CCE in 1984. Most of the early planning for the Beckman Institute took place while Anson was chair of CCE.

“Along with his scientific excellence and his service to the Institute, what stood out about Fred was his humanity. As an assistant professor when he was division chair, I always knew Fred cared not only about my professional development but also about my family and the many challenges young faculty face,” says Dennis Dougherty, the George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry and Norman Davidson Leadership Chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

“Fred was a wonderful source of advice and support, especially when I started as division chair a few years after his term ended,” says David A. Tirrell, now Caltech’s provost. “I often relied on his calm, thoughtful perspectives on Institute matters, and I always looked forward to conversations with Fred—and with Roxana.”

Among Anson’s many honors, he was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1988) and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2003). He received the Alexander von Humboldt Award in 1984, which allowed him to do research in Berlin. Anson was also honored with the inaugural David Grahame Award from the Electrochemical Society (1983), the C.N. Reilley Award in electroanalytical chemistry (1986), and the American Chemical Society Award in Analytical Chemistry (1989). He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1993.

He retired in 2001, and he and Roxana moved to Santa Barbara. In 2019, they moved to Vista del Monte, a retirement community in Santa Barbara. Anson was a supporter of the Santa Barbara Symphony, Opera Santa Barbara, Ensemble Theatre Company, and State Street Ballet. Funds from their charitable trust were used to establish the Fred C. and Roxana H. Anson Scholarship Fund to support Caltech undergraduate students.

Anson is survived by his wife, Roxana Anson; daughter, Alison Anson; son, Eric Anson; daughter-in-law, Linda Anson; and his sister, Liane Anson Hawkins.

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