Oral history interview with R. Byron Bird

Oral history interview with R. Byron Bird

  • 1998-Oct-01

R. Byron Bird opens the interview with a brief discussion of his childhood. Born in Texas, Bird's family moved frequently, following Bird's father, a professor of civil engineering. During high school in Washington, DC, Bird developed his interest in foreign languages, and wanted to pursue either language or music in college. However, his father pushed him towards a degree in chemical engineering. Bird completed two years of study at the University of Maryland before entering the Army to fight in World War II. When he left the Army, he resumed his studies after a brief hiatus in a biochemistry lab of the US Department of Agriculture. Bird completed his degree at the University of Illinois, at Urbana. It was there that he decided he wanted to enter a PhD program in chemistry, and he chose to study at the University of Wisconsin. While in graduate school, Bird conducted rigorous research under Joseph Hirschfelder, and went on to a post-doctoral, Fulbright grant for research in the Netherlands. Bird returned to the United States to take a teaching position in the chemistry department at Cornell University, and after a year there, accepted a position in the chemical engineering department at the University of Wisconsin. Before returning to Wisconsin, Bird spent a summer working for DuPont, where he was introduced to the subject of rheology. Bird was extremely active at Wisconsin; he introduced a curriculum in transport phenomena, and as there existed no satisfactory textbook for this subject, he wrote one with colleagues Warren Stewart and Ed Lightfoot. After publishing a few influential books in his field, Bird returned to his original interest in foreign languages and collaborated with William Shetter on two books of Dutch literature. As a result of another Fulbright, Bird spent a year in Japan as a visiting professor. Frustrated by his inability to understand technical Japanese, he produced a book outlining a program for learning technical Japanese. Bird retired in 1992, but has continued to teach at least one semester each year. He closes his interview by discussing his awards, and talking about his hobbies: music and outdoor activities.

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Place of interview
Original file type PDF, MP3
  • 54 pages
  • 02:09:00
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewer

James G. Traynham is a professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. He holds a PhD in organic chemistry from Northwestern University. He joined Louisiana State University in 1953 and served as chemistry department chairperson from 1968 to 1973. He was chairman of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1988 and is currently councilor of the Baton Rouge section of the American Chemical Society. He was a member of the American Chemical Society’s Joint-Board Council on Chemistry and Public Affairs, as well as a member of the Society’s Committees on Science, Chemical Education, and Organic Chemistry Nomenclature. He has written over 90 publications, including a book on organic nomenclature and a book on the history of organic chemistry.

Physical location


Interviewee biographical information

  • February 05, 1924
  • Bryan, Texas, United States
  • November 13, 2020
  • Madison, Wisconsin, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1947 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign BS Chemical Engineering
1950 University of Wisconsin--Madison PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

Universiteit van Amsterdam

  • 1950 to 1951 Post Doctoral Fellow

University of Wisconsin--Madison

  • 1950 to 1951 Project Associate in Chemistry
  • 1953 to 1955 Project Associate, Department of Chemical Engineering
  • 1955 to 1957 Associate Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering
  • 1957 to 1992 Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering
  • 1964 to 1968 Chairman, Department of Chemical Engineering
  • 1968 to 1972 Burgess Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering
  • 1972 to 1992 Vilas Research Professor
  • 1982 to 1992 John D. MacArthur Professor
  • 1995 to 1999 Professor Emeritus

Cornell University

  • 1951 to 1952 Assistant Professor of Chemistry

E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company

  • 1952 Research Chemist

Technische Universiteit Delft

  • 1958 Fulbright Lecturer and Guggenheim Fellow
  • 1994 J.M. Burgers Professor

Kyōto Daigaku

  • 1962 to 1963 Fulbright Professor

Université catholique de Louvain (1835-1969)

  • 1994 Visiting Professor


Year(s) Award
1959 Curtiss-McGraw Award, American Society for Engineering Education
1960 Westinghouse Award, American Society for Engineering Education
1962 William H. Walker Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
1965 Professional Progress Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
1970 American Physical Society, Fellow
1972 Honorary Doctorate, Lehigh University
1973 Honorary Doctorate, Washington University in St. Louis
1974 Bingham Medal, Society of Rheology
1974 Warren K. Lewis Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
1977 Honorary Doctorate, Technische Universiteit Delft, The Netherlands
1979 Honorary Doctorate, Clarkson University
1981 American Academy of Arts and Science, Fellow
1982 Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, Fellow
1983 Eringen Medal, Society of Engineering Science
1983 American Academy of Mechanics, Fellow
1986 Benjamin Smith Reynolds Award, University of Wisconsin
1986 Honorary Doctorate, Colorado School of Mines
1987 Corcoran Award, American Society for Engineering Education
1987 National Medal of Science
1989 Founders Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
1989 Hilldale Award, University of Wisconsin
1989 LAS Achievement Award, University of Illinois
1991 Institute Lecturer Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
1993 Centennial Medallion, American Society for Engineering Education
1993 Honorary Doctorate, Technion, Israel Institute of Technology
1994 Centennial Medallion, College of Engineering, University of Maryland
1994 Corcoran Award, American Society for Engineering Education
1994 Honorary Doctorate, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, Zürich
1996 Honorary Doctorate, Kyoto University, Japan
1997 Distinguished Alumni Award, Chemical Engineering Department, University of Maryland
1998 Engineering Innovation Hall of Fame Award, College of Engineering, University of Maryland

Cite as

Bird, R. Byron (Robert Byron), interviewed by James G. Traynham in Madison, Wisconsin on October 1, 1998. Philadelphia: Science History Institute, n.d. Oral History Transcript 0173. https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/4kzwbk3.

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The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

5 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads