Obituary - Robert Bau (1944 - 2008)

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Robert Bau (1944 - 2008)

Robert (Bob) Bau died on December 28, 2008, in Los Angeles. Bob was Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California, where he was a member of the faculty from 1969 until the time of his death. Bob served as ACA President in 2006, selflessly devoting countless hours to ACA affairs. In his research Bob possessed remarkable insight and was a master at extract- ing the critical nuggets of information from groups of complex structures. He was a much beloved teacher and mentor, who introduced generations of first-year USC students to chemistry with his trademark sense of the broad historical sweep of chemical science, while also mentoring numerous graduate students who have gone on to their own distinguished, independent careers. His untimely passing leaves a deep void among his many friends in the scientific community.


Bob’s research focused on structural chemistry, where his interests were unusually broad and deep. He was author or co-author of more than 250 research publications. Bob and his collaborators made major contributions to the development of the technique of single-crystal neutron diffraction and to its application in chemical crystallography. Indeed, they have been among the most active users of neutron facilities worldwide, carrying out their work at neutron scattering centers in Asia, Europe, and North America.


Bob’s research group is perhaps best known for its work on the structures of covalent transition-metal hydrides, in which they systematically explored the principles for bonding in these systems and published several highly-cited reviews. They did pioneering work using neutrons to determine the absolute configuration of organic molecules having chiral methylene (-C(H,D)) groups. More recently they studied the structures of small proteins using neutrons as well as synchrotron radiation. Bob was intensely involved in developments at the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) in Oak Ridge, serving as Principal Investigator of the Instrument Development Team (IDT) for the SNS Single-Crystal Diffractometer, TOPAZ, and as a member of the IDT for the Macromolecular Neutron Diffractometer, MaNDi. He was influential in the decision to hold the 2008 ACA meeting in Knoxville in order to showcase the nearby SNS facility.




Bob was born in Shanghai and grew up in Hong Kong, where he completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Hong Kong in 1964. He enjoyed telling friends about the adventure that brought him to America (he embarked literally by ship) – to do his graduate work at UCLA. His mentor there was the distinguished inorganic chemist, Herb Kaesz, but Bob was introduced to crystallography in the laboratory of Mel Churchill at Harvard, where Bob accompanied Kaesz during a sabbatical. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1968, Bob returned to Harvard for a year of postdoctoral studies with Bill Lipscomb, joining the group that was studying the enzyme aspartate carbamoyltransferase. Bob then was appointed to the USC faculty, where he served with distinction for 40 years.

Bob received many honors and awards over the course of his career. He was named a Fellow of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (1974-1976) and was an NIH Career Development Awardee (1975-1980). USC honored Bob with its Associates Awards for Excellence in Teaching (1974) and in Research (1979). In 1982 Bob was elected a Fellow of the AAAS. He received the prestigious US Senior Scientist Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 1985.


Bob Microphone


Beyond his many accomplishments summarized above, important intangibles combined to make Bob an extraordinary scientist and person. Above all, through his humanity and integrity, Bob set a very high example that made him an unusually effective and sensitive mentor. Bob was, in the classical sense, a man of great taste. His broad knowledge of chemistry and his taste in scientific problems guided those who had the good fortune to know and to collaborate with him. In his understated way, Bob was a great ambassador for chemistry and for crystallography. In today’s highly competitive world, Bob’s modesty was the more remarkable. Many remember how genuinely flattered he was to be asked to run for President-elect of the ACA. Indeed, at the time, he was heard to remark that he’d, “Never been asked to run for anything before!”


Bob's Past President's 'speech' at the 2006 ACA meeting Awards Banquet.
He had everyone laughing with his lip-synched rendition of the "Hawaiian Love Song".


Bob is survived by his wife, Margaret Bau Churchill, his daughter and two sons, and two beloved grandchildren. He will be sorely missed by colleagues, friends, and family alike.

––Tom Koetzle