Chance » Reflections » McGowan

Memories of Britton Chance

Joseph C. McGowan/ McGowan Associates

30 May 2011

Many may write about the first time they saw Brit ride his bicycle down the hall in the laboratory building. Still, that memory says a lot about the man. The hour was early, he was clearly of an age where most people were retired, and he looked like he totally belonged there and where was your bicycle? I happened to be doing some research using Britt’s magnet in the early 90s, in the early morning. For this particular set of experiments I was working with my wife-to-be, Dr. Jane DiGiacomo (now McGowan), occasional medical students, and unwilling porcine subjects. I was pretty new to Penn but had been introduced to Brit by Maria Delivoria, as had Jane. It was an honor as a brand new grad student to be using his magnet to perform P-31 NMR spectroscopy, knowing that he’d innovated the techniques we were using. We had seen his early morning two-wheeled entrance but a particular med student had not and dashed into the lab to tell us that some strange old man was pedaling down the hall. Without missing a beat, Jane and I told her that it was OK, that old man pretty much owned the place.

Some time later, I started my dissertation research and found my way to “The Pool” a.k.a. Jack Leigh’s laboratory, located in and around the former swimming pool of the nursing school. I’m disappointed writing this that Jack is no longer with us, and I’m hoping that others can tell some of the stories that he would have. Jack had a lot of Brit stories, some more colorful than others. I remember him relating the aftermath of Brit’s bypass surgery, and how Brit signed himself out of the hospital pretty much immediately, clearly without the blessing of his physicians, on the condition that he proceed directly home. According to Jack, Brit proceeded directly to the lab and back to work.

Brit’s presence was felt around the Pool; it was clear that the example of work ethic started from the top, and that Jack had "inherited" it from Brit and of course Mildred Cohn. It was also clear that the research was what mattered, and that if one wanted to give a life to science, the role models were there. It was always great to talk about your research with Brit. He seemed aware of every paper that was published and how it related to one’s current project. He always had advice for a next step or for whom to talk to. I was grateful to Jack for the same sort of guidance- even though a conversation with either of them seemed to always point to more work.

Brit always wanted to talk about how well someone else was doing. When I spoke with him at Jack Leigh’s reception recognizing Jack’s appointment to the Britton Chance Chair of Radiology, I might have hinted at how great it was to have a Chance Chair. Brit quietly insisted, "We have to celebrate Jack!" in a way that still touches my heart.

Jack used to say that Brit should have a Nobel Prize but for having "annoyed" influential people in the past. (I’m editing Jack’s actual wording here.) It does seem that, Nobel or not, it’s possible for a person to lead such a life as Brit’s and escape much public notice. After serving on Penn’s faculty for some years I joined the faculty of the United States Naval Academy, where I taught electrical engineering, but also signed up to teach sailing. During my process of becoming qualified to skipper the large Navy sailing vessels that are used for offshore training, I spent a good amount of time with a sailor who was a guru in the program. At one point on the bay he pointed out a vessel going by as a "Britton Chance." At the time I assumed that with Brit’s Olympic background he’d done some boat design on the side but of course this was Britton Chance the son. In the confusing conversation that ensued, I related my connection to BC and his scientific accomplishments, which served to amaze my colleague who knew only of the sailing exploits of BC (the younger). Eventually we figured out that we were talking about two different legendary figures. On the Chesapeake Bay and in many waters of the world, it’s the younger that is the famous one. (That being said, BC the younger must have had quite a teacher.)

I was happy to share a few sailing stories with Brit the last time I saw him, which was at a meeting about two years ago at Drexel University. At that time Brit was still spending a lot of time on the water near Singapore. He had also helped to start a company around a technique (his) of a NIR-based hematoma detector and I was playing a minor role in helping that group connect with the US Navy. It was clear at that meeting that Brit continued to innovate, to explore, to sail, and to live a storied life to the fullest. There are not many such, and I among many others have been blessed by having known him.

– Joseph C. McGowan, PhD, PE