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In memory of Britton Chance

Oleg Jardetsky / Stanford University

03 April 2011

Already as a student in Minnesota and later fellow at Caltech in the early nineteen fifties I had heard of a famous Philadelphia biochemist, who rode a bicycle to work every morning with a slide rule across the bars and invented unheard-of machines with exploding test tubes flying through the air, to study fast reactions.

My first encounter with Britton Chance was in 1964, when Mildred Cohn, Bob Shulman and I organized the first Conference on Magnetic Resonance in Biological Systems at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. We needed a chairman for the opening and closing sessions who could control the audience. Mildred proposed that Britton was an obvious choice. As relative unknowns in a new field in which most of the work came from our labs, we also felt we needed the support of the Establishment. Brit accepted and we were not disappointed. When someone snowed the audience with an endless series of slides and a mass of data, he would ask: So what does this tell you? Not every author had an answer. Whenever I went to Philadelphia to give a seminar in the sixties, seventies and eighties, I knew this question would haunt me. But it was so much in the spirit of my own philosophy in science that I made sure I had an answer. At the end of the conference – of some 100 people – there was a hot debate on the proposal to make this a permanent international conference, alternating the location between the US and other countries. When Barry Commoner went into a diatribe that this was an irresponsible creation of a junket, Brit cut him off: If you don’t want to look at anything, except yourself, stay home. Others travel to learn.

In 1966 when I was on sabbatical in Cambridge, the Chances were visiting there and invited us to a party at Churchill College. It was one of the most lavish parties I ever attended. Apart from the biochemists one knew one encountered many others, never seen before or after, who proved to be engaging conversationalists. After the end, the hall of Churchill looked like an abandoned battlefield.

A decade later, in the mid-seventies Brit took a serious interest in magnetic resonance, especially in its potential applications to study metabolism in vivo. Quickly, he became, along with George Radda, one of the most vociferous proponents of the method. When he published a paper with a photograph of himself, his leg in a magnet, the method began looking almost respectable. Ultimately in vivo applications of NMR made less of an impact than imaging, because of low sensitivity, but Brit’s enthusiastic presentations helped attract many to the field, whose membership now numbers in the thousands, as measured by the attendance at the twenty first international conference in the series started in 1964.

In the 1980s Brit asked me to help organize a meeting on new methods in Biophysics, to be held in Mexico. Most of the planning was done on his visits to Stanford to do experiments at SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center). His demeanor in the SLAC control room was noteworthy. He monitored the beam and the first signs of the still incomprehensible results, gave directions to his assistant, made notes, took phone calls and maintained our conversation without losing the thread of thought. He clearly did not want to be outdone by Julius Caesar, who was reputed to perform five tasks simultaneously. On one occasion I had lost patience with a distracted guard and drove past the control point to enter SLAC premises. To be sure, Brit received a questioning phone call. Without saying a word to me, he hopped on his bicycle, rode to the gate, signed me in and assured the guard that I was a legitimate Stanford faculty member and would not blow up the place. On some occasions he came over to our house for dinner, which he even remembered in 2006 in his note for the memento book on my retirement. But the “exquisite cuisine” to which he referred was my wife’s, not my contribution.

My last encounters with Brit were at the celebration of his and Mildred Cohn’s 90th birthdays in 2003. By then I was no longer able to negotiate the steep stairs in the auditorium and was confined to the back row. But both Brit and Mildred, nearly twenty years my senior, seated way down below, in front, sprung up the stairs to shake hands and say hello. It was reassuring to note that old age was still compatible with accomplishment.

It was my privilege in the course of my life to have known a sizeable number of remarkable individuals – from Linus Pauling and P.A.M. Dirac to Bertrand Russell and Alexander Kerensky. One of the most remarkable among them was Britton Chance.

– Oleg Jardetzky
Stanford University