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Philanthropist Making Imprint : Latest Beckman Largess Endows Science Facility

November 05, 1985|MARK I. PINSKY | Times Staff Writer

"It's harder to give money away than it is to make it," said Dr. Arnold O. Beckman, 85, the Orange County philanthropist and scientific pioneer who has had plenty of experience in doing both.

Beckman made the observation Monday, just before announcing the latest example of his largess--$20 million for construction and endowment of the western headquarters and study center of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering in Irvine. Beckman in an interview last month had confirmed his intention to make the grant.

In the last decade, the Corona del Mar resident's vest-pocket Arnold O. and Mabel Beckman Foundation has dispensed approximately $100 million, more than $75 million in the last year alone, in the process leaving Beckman's name and imprint on American medical and scientific research.

"Either we dispose of it ourselves or it gets handed over to our estate and the government gets it,' Beckman said of attempts by him and his wife of 60 years to distribute the money before they die. "I think Mrs. Beckman and I can be a little more effective than the bureaucrats in Washington."

The most recent gift, the largest single contribution in the history of the National Academy of Sciences, follows the general pattern of Beckman's accelerating disposition of a personal fortune estimated to be in excess of half a billion dollars. Much of the money was realized from the sale in 1981 of the Fullerton-based Beckman Instruments Inc. to the SmithKline Corp. of Philadelphia.

Beckman steadfastly declines to say how much money remains in the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, a private, tax-exempt organization.

"We live simply and we've accumulated a little surplus that we're not going to take with us," Beckman told an interviewer last May, when his $12-million gift to Stanford University for a Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine was announced.

Neither of the Beckmans' two adult children had an interest in their father's business.

Beckman's overriding concern has been to shorten the period of time between breakthrough research in academia and its practical application.

"As I look back over the years," Beckman said in an interview, "it seems to me that universities, by and large, do not have the interest or structure to speedily develop basic discoveries and quickly convert them to everyday needs."

Began Tinkering at 9

Such a concern is not surprising, inasmuch as Beckman's own success was grounded in just such application. His father, a blacksmith in Cullom, Ill., built a backyard shed for Beckman when he was 9 years old, and it was in that shed that the tinkering began.

In 1935, while still a member of the faculty at Caltech, Beckman founded his company to market an "acidimeter," which enabled Southern California citrus processors to gauge the level of acidity in lemon juice. That device became a widely used tool for analytic chemists, and was followed in 1940 by two equally profitable inventions used for precision scientific measurements, the Beckman DU Spectrophotometer and the Helipot, which was an essential component of early World War II radar systems.

Beckman has not strayed far from his personal history in making his larger grants.

The University of Illinois, thus far the recipient of the largest gift, is where Beckman earned his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and master's degree in physical chemistry in the early 1920s. Caltech, in Pasadena, is where he earned his doctorate in photochemistry in 1928 and served on the faculty until 1940, when he began devoting full time to Beckman Instruments. Beckman is chairman emeritus of the Caltech board of trustees. The UC Irvine campus is less than four miles from Beckman's Corona del Mar home. The Beckman Scientific Instruments division of SmithKline Beckman, where the founder still maintains an office, is also located in Irvine, just off the UCI campus.

In general, Beckman said Monday, the goal of the foundation is "to use the available funds in the best possible way to advance medical science and scientific research."

More often than not, recipient institutions name the donated facility for the Beckmans, who frequently appear in person for the announcements. Some of the larger grants, like that to the University of Illinois, require a form of matching participation by the institution. The University of Illinois agreed to raise $10 million to augment Beckman's $40 million. The grant to Stanford and one to the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla were part of larger fund-raising campaigns that included equal or larger grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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