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ChE Emeritus Professor James Douglas Passes Away

James M. Douglas

James M. Douglas

Emeritus Professor James Douglas, 83, of our Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department passed away at his home on February 15, 2017. Douglas was a full professor at UMass Amherst for nearly 30 years, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and was a recipient of the UMass Amherst Chancellor’s Medal. So great was his influence that a former student established the Professor James Douglas Early Career Faculty Development Award in the College of Engineering in his honor. Read entire obituary.

Douglas cut a distinctive path through the process design community in chemical engineering. He pioneered a rational approach to design, embodied in a systematic design method that altered the well-established belief that no one could teach process design without years of experience. Douglas joined the UMass Amherst ChE department in 1968, served as department head from 1979 to 1982, and retired in 1997.

According to his obituary, Professor Douglas was born in Aurora, Illinois, on July 27, 1933. He received a Bachelor of Science Degree from Johns Hopkins University and in 1960 earned his Doctorate in Chemical Engineering from the University of Delaware. He worked in industry for five years before beginning a long and notable career in academia.

“He enjoyed teaching undergraduates and mentoring in the graduate program,” as his obituary noted. “His former students work in many countries all over the globe. While at UMass, he was active in research and published many papers, articles, and text books which revolutionized some specific areas of the field…Jim loved good jokes, clever pranks, sailing, the sunsets in Cape Cod, dark chocolate, conservative politics, and watching the Patriots win football games.” 

In addition to other accomplishments, Douglass won the Outstanding Senior Faculty Award from the College of Engineering, a CAST Division Award and the Warren K. Lewis Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and in 1996 was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

In 2014, the James Douglas Early Career Faculty Development Award was established “in honor of Professor Douglas’ research innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and ability to tackle complex problems using innovative and non-traditional approaches to achieve results.”

“We are very grateful for this wonderful gift honoring Professor Jim Douglas, who was an inspirational researcher, teacher, and mentor to generations of UMass Chemical Engineering students,” said Professor T.J. (Lakis) Mountziaris, head of the Chemical Engineering Department at that time. “Our department is growing and this Career Development Award is very timely, because it will help us attract and retain outstanding faculty members.”

The purpose of the Douglas Fund is to provide an Early Career Faculty Development Award annually to an untenured faculty member in the ChE department. The funds are meant to support a faculty member whose entrepreneurial spirit and creativity is an inspiration to colleagues and students alike. Then Assistant Professor Jessica Schiffman of the ChE department was named the initial recipient of the Douglas Award in 2014.  

In part, the research of Professor Douglas dealt with systematic procedures, heuristics, and short-cut computational techniques developed for the conceptual design, retrofitting, and control of petrochemical and solids processes. In addition, he was developing interactive computer programs based on these systematic procedures. He was also interested in extending the hierarchical decision procedure to include a simple way of identifying and avoiding pollution problems early in the development stages of a design.

As Douglas explained, “Hence, if we can make decisions (i.e., find alternatives) that do not lead to pollution problems, we can develop cleaner processes. The hierarchical decision procedure also can be used to decompose existing designs, and then process alternatives that eliminate existing pollution sources can be identified.”

Professor Douglas was survived by his beloved wife of 59 years, Betsy Douglas. His obituary commented that “He was the patriarch of Clan Douglas.” He is also survived by his children (Bob Douglas and Lynn Swain), his five grandchildren (Emily Douglas, Robyn Douglas, Erika Douglas, Gordon Swain, and Katie Swain), and his sister Jean Kirk. (March 2017)