Grand Vision, Generosity Led to Building of the Beckman Institute

The Beckman Institute grew out of a fortunate timing of events: at the same time University of Illinois officials were exploring the idea of building a research center on campus, Arnold and Mabel Beckman were looking for ways to share their good fortune with others.

If there was one moment when the dream of building a center that would serve as the crown jewel of research at the University of Illinois started to become a reality, it probably occurred one late summer day in 1985. That was the day when Ted Brown returned from vacation to find that Arnold and Mabel Beckman had accepted the University’s proposal to fund the building of an interdisciplinary research center on campus.

Brown had hoped they would agree to fund $20M of the expected price tag of $50M needed to build the facility. After the Beckmans agreed to give the entire amount of $40M – contingent upon a $10M matching contribution from the state of Illinois – he was stunned. When the proposal was first sent to the Beckmans, it was not at all clear they would donate an amount that turned out to be the largest single gift ever to a public university.

Brown describes his reaction upon hearing the news as being one of “elation” that, when shared with his committee colleagues Karl Hess and William Greenough, grew into a “feeling bordering on delirium.” It was a moment Brown and many others had been working toward for almost three years and one that he said seemed too good to be true.

But true it was and, with the additional $10M matching grant from the state, an announcement was made in October of 1985 that a center for doing leading-edge, interdisciplinary research would be built on the University of Illinois campus. Construction was finally completed and faculty members began to move into the building in 1989, and in April a dedication ceremony and formal opening was held.

Today, 20 years later, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology remains one of the leading centers for interdisciplinary research in the country. Close to 200 faculty members from more than 40 different departments on campus continue to break down the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines while making discoveries in areas as diverse as small scale electronics, cognition, materials science, and bioengineering.  

In 2009 the Institute celebrates 20 years of existence, with a 20th Anniversary Celebration set for April 16th and a 20th Anniversary Symposium planned for October 5-7 that will reunite many of the people who helped make Beckman what it is today. Brown, the Founding Director of Beckman, will be the keynote speaker at the April 16 event. He will be joined by his successors as Directors, Jiri Jonas and Pierre Wiltzius, as well as many others who helped bring the Beckman Institute into existence.  

Undoubtedly, the story of how the Beckman Institute came to be will be part of the discussion at the 20th Anniversary Celebration and the Symposium. Brown and others have written of the history of the Institute, which had its genesis in ideas tossed out in informal discussions and official meetings.

In order to finance, build, and maintain the Beckman Institute facility and advance the research work that goes on here, many people have contributed over the past two decades. The list begins with Arnold and Mabel Beckman.

Through personal donations and through their foundation, Arnold and Mabel had given generously to the University of Illinois over the years. Born in Cullom, Illinois, Arnold grew up there and in Bloomington and Normal before graduating from Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, and in 1922 with a master’s in physical chemistry. He earned a Ph.D. in photochemistry from Caltech in 1928, later returning as a professor.

At Caltech Arnold invented the pH meter, a breakthrough instrument for chemical analysis that came to be an indispensable electromechanical tool for science and industry. He later formed Beckman Instruments and, through that corporation and subsequent companies, made a place for himself in the history of invention and business, eventually amassing a fortune that was said to be worth more than $400M. He and his wife formed the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation at just about the same time University of Illinois officials were starting to explore alternatives to state and federal funding for new, large-scale projects.

As Vice-Chancellor for Research at Illinois in the early 1980s Brown was part of discussions about projects that would improve Illinois’ standing as a research institution, and about ways to attract private funding for them. Brown has written that, from the beginning, the thinking was that any proposal should be ambitious and feature research initiatives that crossed traditional departmental boundaries.

With Brown taking the lead, two committees were formed, headed by Greenough and Hess, and ideas for research themes and other relevant matters were discussed, discarded, or generally accepted. Eventually a final proposal was drafted to give to Arnold, Mabel, and the Beckman foundation in July of 1985.

With the commitment of $40M from the Beckmans, planning began toward building the new center at the corner of University and Wright streets in Urbana and ground was broken in 1986. The architectural firm of Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls was chosen to design the new building, and came up with a look that featured a tower that faces south toward campus, a unique Flemish bond brick pattern for the exterior, accented by green glass on every side, and a large atrium space that illuminates an open interior.

Brown was named as the first Director of the Beckman Institute, with Greenough and Hess as Associate Directors. Some personnel began moving into the building in 1988 before it was completely finished, and in early 1989 more staff members and some faculty followed. The official dedication occurred on April 7, 1989, with Arnold, Mabel, Illinois governor James Thompson, and other dignitaries on hand.

Twenty-one research programs were chosen for occupancy in that first year, with some groups like Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Neuroscience that remain today, others like Neuronal Pattern Analysis that have undergone name changes (to NeuroTech), and still others that have given way to the march of science and are no longer active.

Along the way, remarkable research breakthroughs have been made in areas such as materials science (invention of self-healing materials) psychology (studies demonstrating brain plasticity), nanoscale applications (stretchable silicon and carbon nanotube arrays), and bioengineering (intelligent hearing aid), among many others.

Part of the vision for the Beckman Institute from the start was that, as scientific discovery inevitably goes down new and sometimes unexpected paths, change in both research directions and faculty was seen as a necessary function of doing good science. Some Illinois faculty like Nobel Prize winner Paul Lauterbur were at the Institute and then moved on, while others like current research theme co-chairs Greenough and Art Kramer have grown their research while working at Beckman for the last 20 years.

Brown stepped down as Director in 1993, with Jiri Jonas from the Department of Chemistry taking over. Jonas retired and was succeeded in 2001 by Pierre Wiltzius, who left the University in 2008. Interim Director Tamer Başar replaced Wiltzius, with a permanent Director expected to be named in 2009.

Many of the faculty and administrators who helped create this internationally-known research facility will be returning in October for the 20th Anniversary Symposium that will look at the history, people, and science of the Beckman Institute over the past two decades.

Missing will be the two people whose generous gift made the Beckman Institute a reality. Mabel Beckman passed away shortly after the Institute opened in 1989, while Arnold died in 2004 at the age of 104.

But the spirit of scientific discovery that Arnold Beckman exemplified lives on through the Beckman Foundation, educational and scholarship programs, and five different research centers, including the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. 

Beckman Institute at 20