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Scholarship, Friendship and Gratitude

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Scholarship, Friendship and Gratitude

In 1974, a 49 year-old woman arrived, unexpected and without invitation, at the University of Maryland with a very specific request: She wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry–if she could study under Professor Jan Sengers. The woman's name was Frances Balfour, and her visit marked the start of a unique relationship that lasted over 35 years and ended with a bequest that established the Robert Franklin and Frances Riggs Wright Distinguished Chair in Chemical Engineering.

Balfour was born in 1925. Her father was an electrical engineer and the general manager of Westinghouse's New Orleans facility. Her mother, whom she described as a "beauty," was a homemaker. Her maternal grandfather, a surgeon, encouraged her interests in science and math, a rare pursuit for a young woman at the time. She received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Duke University in 1947.

Widowed at a young age, Balfour had no children and never remarried. She never lost her love of science, and financial independence enabled her to return to college. She studied at Tulane University from 1958-1964, where she became familiar with work published by a physicist named Jan V. Sengers. But the school was not a good fit for her, and she left without receiving a degree.

Ten years later, Sengers, six years her junior, was a professor at the University of Maryland's Institute for Molecular Physics, and she had suddenly appeared, asking him to be her advisor.

"Now of course I could not refuse that!" says the now-Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, who holds joint appointments in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering [ChBE] and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology.

Not everyone was so welcoming. "She was a bit rusty in her knowledge, so some people looked down on her a little," Sengers explains, “but I wanted to give her an opportunity to pursue a Ph.D."

Sengers, who was scheduled to take a sabbatical, arranged to have Balfour spend her first year at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where she worked with his wife, Dr. Anneke Levelt Sengers, possibly her first scientific female role model.

After earning her doctorate in 1982, Balfour worked as a physical chemist in a shipyard in Mississippi. She eventually returned to her family's home in Metairie, La. to care for her mother, and lived there for the rest of her own life. She stayed in touch with Jan and Anneke Sengers, with who she had become good friends.

Years later, Sengers visited Balfour while in New Orleans for a conference. "She started talking to me about what she should do with her legacy," he says, "and I [was] totally naïve. I had no idea she was thinking about the University of Maryland." Instead of suggesting a donation to the school, he replied that finding a recipient who shared her values should influence her decision. "Then she said, 'I knew I had the right Ph.D. advisor!' Later on I realized she was testing whether her money would be in safe hands at the University of Maryland."

When Balfour decided to leave an endowment to the university, Sengers had become the chair of the then-Department of Chemical Engineering. Although her Ph.D. was in chemistry, she agreed to use her legacy to help him strengthen the department. With the assistance of the Clark School's development staff, they established an endowed chair named in honor of her parents.

Dr. Frances Balfour passed away in 2011. Her generosity has enabled ChBE to begin the search for its first Robert Franklin and Frances Riggs Wright Distinguished Chair in Chemical Engineering.

"This was done in gratitude," Sengers says of his remarkable friend. She has entrusted her financial and spiritual legacy to us, because she knew that we would be worthy of her trust."

August 30, 2013

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