News obituary

The life of Prof. Robert A. Alberty

Robert A. Alberty, professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and former dean of MIT’s School of Science — whose seminal contributions to the thermodynamics and kinetics of biochemical reactions are still at the forefront of chemistry — passed away on Saturday, Jan. 18, at the age of 92.

A member of the MIT faculty since 1967, Alberty led the School of Science from 1967 to 1982, when he returned to teaching and research in physical chemistry. He became professor emeritus in 1991.

“Bob’s characterization of enzyme kinetics from 1955 to 1965 remains the model for investigations of enzymatic mechanism,” says chemistry department head Sylvia Ceyer, the J. C. Sheehan Professor of Chemistry. “His work is well-known for its utmost attention to detail, and despite being a demanding scientist, he was the quintessential gentleman — always kind and warm-hearted.”

Alberty’s work placed the kinetic model by Leonor Michaelis and Maud Menten some 30 years earlier on a firm theoretical basis, Ceyer says, by describing the interplay between kinetics and equilibrium. He was also the first to recognize the complexity of the many species of adenosine 5’-triphosphate (ATP), she adds, and to develop a rigorous, but easily generalizable, thermodynamic treatment to relate them.

Alberty was widely regarded by MIT colleagues as an accomplished educator at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Many of his students and postdocs went on to pursue outstanding research careers; he was particularly proud of those who became members of the National Academy of Sciences — a status he himself achieved in 1965.

Alberty was the author or co-author of physical chemistry textbooks that are widely used to this day. Physical Chemistry (Wiley), a textbook he co-authored with Farrington Daniels in 1955, was his most esteemed and enduring work. Alberty’s refinements to the book spanned more than 50 years, during which time he and his co-authors — most recently Moungi Bawendi and the late Robert J. Silbey, both professors at MIT — updated the volume to meet current trends and standards. Physical Chemistry is still considered the benchmark textbook in the field, and is used in teaching 5.60 (Thermodynamics and Kinetics) in MIT’s Department of Chemistry.

“I had the pleasure of watching Professor Alberty — Bob to everyone here — in action during the updating of the Physical Chemistry textbook,” says Bawendi, the Lester Wolfe Professor of Chemistry. “Bob was tireless and incredibly organized. He knew the contents of the book to the last detail, [and] rewrote or edited large parts of it, with a clear sense of what he thought should be reorganized to make the text up-to-date. It was an amazing learning experience and a humbling one to watch the two Bobs — Bob Alberty and Bob Silbey — rework the text, especially with Bob Alberty well into his eighties at the time.”

“When I was hired at MIT in 1990, it was in anticipation of Bob’s retirement,” Bawendi adds. “But it never felt that Bob ever actually ‘retired,’ as he was still heavily involved for so many years writing theoretical works, textbooks, and active in leadership positions of chemical and scientific organizations. I was lucky to have had the chance to work with Bob.”

Alberty’s work on Physical Chemistry led to invitations to participate in and chair national research committees concerned with laboratory safety standards and chemical disposal. A report he authored for the National Research Council in 1981, “Prudent Practices in the Chemical Laboratory,” sold more copies than any of that organization’s previous publications. Alberty also chaired the committee that wrote a second report, in 1983, “Prudent Practices for the Disposal of Chemicals in the Laboratory.”

Alberty was no stranger to senior administrative roles at universities: In 1967, while dean of the Graduate School at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he was invited to become dean of the School of Science at MIT, as well as a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry. His notable achievements as MIT’s dean of science included the development of a joint MIT-Harvard University MD-PhD program and the establishment of the Cancer Research Center, now the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. He was also the first co-chairman of MIT’s exchange program with Wellesley College and chaired the Institute Committee on Environmental Health and Safety.

As dean of science, Alberty “was always available to his colleagues, and always optimistic about finding funding for many endeavors to benefit chemistry and the Institute as a whole,” says Bob Field, the Robert T. Haslam and Bradley Dewey Professor of Chemistry. “He liked nothing better than to convey good news about tenure.”

“I overlapped with the late stage of Bob Alberty’s career, after he returned to being ‘just’ a professor following a stint as dean of science,” says Keith Nelson, a professor of chemistry. “Long past official retirement and into emeritus status, Bob had fewer official responsibilities but just as much scientific curiosity, energy, and enthusiasm as ever. So he took advantage of the opportunity to work with few distractions to consolidate much of the last phase of his theoretical research and to write a unique textbook, Thermodynamics of Biochemical Reactions, published in 2005.”

This topic is not covered in standard courses, Nelson adds, “largely because the theoretical framework and its applications were developed much more recently than the rest of thermodynamics, and significantly by Bob Alberty. The very next year, Bob published a supplementary text on applications of Mathematica software to problems in biochemical thermodynamics. … [He] was not content to inscribe his scientific achievements in textbook form, but also succeeded in bringing his discipline to life for a new generation of students and scientists.”

Alberty spent 30 years as an advisor to the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation and was instrumental in developing many of its programs — including the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Awards Program, which supports young chemistry professors who have demonstrated interest and ability in being outstanding teachers as they are considered for tenure.

Born in Winfield, Kan., Alberty carried out his undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska, receiving his BS in 1943, followed by an MS from the same university. In 1947, he received his PhD in chemistry from Wisconsin and immediately became an instructor at that institution. He moved up the ranks at Wisconsin, becoming a full professor in 1956. In 1962, he was appointed associate dean of letters and science before being appointed as the dean of the Graduate School in 1963.

Alberty received professional awards and accolades including membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Chemical Society.

Alberty was predeceased by his wife of 66 years, Lillian; the couple met in high school, when he was president of the chemistry club and she was the club’s secretary. They both attended Wisconsin and married the day after their graduation.

Alberty is survived by his three children, Nancy Lou Zant, of Fairfield, Mont.; Steven C. Alberty, of Eugene, Ore.; and Catherine Alberty Baxter, of Roseville, Minn.; by nine grandchildren; and by six great-grandchildren.

Services will take place at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 25, at University Lutheran Church, 66 Winthrop St., Cambridge.

This obituary was originally published online by the MIT News Office on Jan. 23, 2014: