In 1941, before Bob Bird enrolled at the University of Maryland, he told his dad he was planning to study foreign languages.
Bob’s dad, however, had other ideas. “If you want to be able to earn a living, you should take engineering,” said his dad. “Furthermore, since chemical engineering is the newest field and reputed to be the most difficult, you should take that.”
The rest, as they say, is history. For three years, Bob’s chemical engineering studies were interrupted while he served the U.S. Army in World War II. After going through basic training and Officer Candidate School, he served as a lieutenant in the 90th Mortar Battalion. The 90th fought all the way through Germany from the Belgian border to the Austrian border, giving Bob a chance to practice the German he had learned by himself. (Today, he also is proficient in Dutch and, to a lesser degree, in Japanese.)
After the war, Bob earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1947 from the University of Illinois and a PhD in physical chemistry in 1950 from UW-Madison, followed by two years of postdoctoral research at the University of Amsterdam and at UW-Madison. During this period, he worked on the text Molecular Theory of Gases and Liquids (1954), with Joseph Hirschfelder and Charles Curtiss. He served on the UW-Madison chemical engineering faculty from 1953 through his retirement in 1992—and to this day, remains a “regular” on the engineering campus.
Although Bob has made research contributions in fluid dynamics, transport phenomena, molecular theory of polymers, and the rheology of polymeric liquids, he is a teacher at heart. During his active career, he was happiest when he was writing textbooks—among them, the textbook Transport Phenomena (1960, 2001), co-authored with colleagues Warren Stewart and Edwin Lightfoot.
He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, has received 10 honorary doctorates from universities around the globe, was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and for the better part of the past 70 years, has interacted with and inspired students and colleagues worldwide.
Bob’s 90th birthday is February 2014. To commemorate this milestone, the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering hosted a symposium and banquet January 30 and 31, 2014. To make a gift to the university in Bob’s honor, visit go.wisc.edu/bird90.