Emeritus Professor Richard Stein, Renowned Chemistry and Polymer Science Researcher, Dies at Age 95
AMHERST, Mass. – Richard (Dick) Stein, the Emeritus Charles A. Goessmann Professor in Chemistry and founder of the UMass Amherst’s acclaimed polymer science program, died on June 21, 2021. He was 95.
In a prestigious career that spanned four decades at UMass Amherst, Stein is credited with being a pioneering researcher in polymer science and with revolutionizing the way research funding was managed at the university in the 1950s. He published more than 400 articles, multiple books and received three honorary doctorate degrees as a faculty member in the College of Natural Sciences.
Known as a trailblazing researcher, Stein made deep, lasting collaborations across disciplines. Perhaps the most notable was the founding of the Polymer Science Research Institute and the Research Computing Center in 1961. He also was the driving force behind the establishment of both the polymer science and engineering program and the Silvio O. Conte National Center for Polymer Research at UMass. Considered a founding father of polymer science research, Stein was respected both nationally and abroad as one of his generation’s most prominent scientists in that field.
UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said, “Professor Dick Stein ranks as one of UMass Amherst’s most innovative and accomplished faculty in the 20th century, and he continued to contribute to our community throughout his vibrant retirement. His passion for research and devotion to his students earned him widespread acclaim and admiration. He represented UMass with extraordinary distinction, and we will miss him dearly.”
A native of Long Island, N.Y., Stein studied chemistry at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, where he made some of the first light-scattering studies of polymer dimensions in solution. After graduating in 1945, he continued his studies at Princeton, where he studied polymers, earning his doctorate in 1948. After a brief period away, he returned to Princeton in 1949 to work on plastics. In the post-war period, plastics and polymers were the “next big things” and funding for the sciences at universities increased. Stein was poised to rise to prominence in his field. He came to UMass Amherst in 1950 as an associate professor and launched the polymer program.
Stein also developed the university’s first advanced physical chemistry courses in quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics and polymer science, and initiated graduate research in the study of the structure-property relationships of polymers using light and particle scattering.
A Leader in Establishing UMass as a National Research University
In the 1950s, research grant funds from the federal government went directly to the state treasury, not the UMass campus. Stein partnered with Charles Alexander, the dean of science, to get a bill passed in the state Legislature that let research money come directly to the campus.
Along with his colleague George Richason, Jr., Stein played an instrumental role in the chemistry department’s “dynamic decade” from 1960 to 1970, when the university grew from just over 5,000 students to more than 15,000, with a corresponding increase in general chemistry. Richason and Stein are credited with helping to make sure that the department had proper research facilities and protocols to accommodate the increase.
Throughout his career and into his retirement, Stein received numerous awards and accolades, including being a member of the first delegation in chemistry to the People’s Republic of China. He was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 1991, the National Academy of Engineering in 1992, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 1992, and the Plastics Hall of Fame in 1996. Stein also was recognized for his commitment to students in classrooms, offices and labs. In 1999, the Materials Research Society conferred on him its highest honor, the Von Hippel Award. Stein was the first polymer scientist to receive the award. The society recognized Stein for his 50 years of research on how polymer materials orient, crystallize and deform and saluted him for originating the field of rheo-optics, which encompasses simultaneous real-time measurement of optical properties and polymer melt rheology.
In 2014, he was presented with a certificate of Congressional Recognition for his outstanding service to UMass and to the community. In 2015, State Sen. Stan Rosenberg presented Stein with an official joint House-Senate resolution recognizing his many accomplishments and contributions to the Commonwealth.
Stein’s love for science had roots in his childhood and it took him around the world as a researcher. He traveled to several countries to teach and learn about local cultures. Among his most memorable travels were the six months spent with his family in Japan when he worked as a Fulbright Professor at Kyoto University.
After retiring from UMass in 1991, Stein took pride in the fact that his work was being carried forward by the many students he mentored at the university. During his career at UMass, he mentored more than 140 master’s and doctoral candidates. According to his family, Stein passionately believed in the good ideas of everyone he knew, empowering others to do the brave, hard work of following their passions and callings. He inspired people to believe in out-of-the-box ideas and forge new paths.
In his retirement, Stein focused on local, national and global issues of interest to him. He was the co-organizer of the UMass contribution to the National Teach-In for Global Warming Solutions and in 2011 co-authored his final book, “The Energy Problem” with the late Joseph Powers. The book represented years of dedication to finding innovative solutions to climate change. He often voiced his views in newspaper letters to the editor, reached out to legislators, participated in the Amherst Town Meeting and met regularly with local political leaders.
Stein also was an early proponent of the development of biochar, an expertly produced horticulture charcoal that gets applied to soils to help restore their thriving ecologies. He worked on this project after his retirement and was a founder of the Pioneer Valley Biochar Initiative.
When not traveling, teaching or researching, Stein spent summers with his family at their cottage on Lake Wyola, swimming, sailing his catamaran and enjoying the quiet stillness of nature. There was always an open door, an extra bed and a meal to share for his friends, colleagues, students and family at the lake house.
Stein was preceded in death by Judy, his wife for nearly 70 years, in 2019. He was also preceded in death by his sister Marge Manheimer and his daughter Linda Rost. He is survived by his children, Anne Stein and husband, Monty Kroopkin, of San Diego; Carol Avonti and husband, Steve, of West Springfield; Lisa Lesure and husband, Walter, of Amherst; son-in-law Darrel Rost of Pittsfield; six grandchildren, Faith Stein, Kristen Avonti, Rick Avonti, Mariah Lesure, Kayla Lesure and Taylor Lesure; five great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews and extended family.
Memorial services will be held at the UMass Campus Center on the 11th floor of the Marriott Center on July 8. Arrival begins at 2 p.m. Services will begin at 3 p.m., with refreshments to follow. Parking is available in the Campus Center parking garage. Donations in his honor can be made online.