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Malcolm Renfrew dies at 103; chemist helped develop Teflon

Renfrew and his team at DuPont were given the task of figuring out what to do with the compound, which was accidentally discovered by another chemist.

October 15, 2013|By Elaine Woo
  • Malcolm Renfrew, a former University of Idaho professor oversaw the DuPont team that developed Teflon in the late 1930s.
Malcolm Renfrew, a former University of Idaho professor oversaw the DuPont… (University of Idaho )

Chemist Malcolm Renfrew never imagined that his work would one day become synonymous with the nonstick frying pan. As a young man in the 1930s he dreamed of acting and joined a traveling tent show.

The tent, however, burned down, which sent Renfrew back to studying chemistry and, in 1938, a job researching plastics at DuPont laboratories in New Jersey.

When a colleague investigating refrigerants accidentally invented a substance resistant to chemicals and heat, DuPont gave Renfrew and his team the task of figuring out what to do with it.

Renfrew, who oversaw the development of that compound — polytetrafluoroethylene resin, later trademarked as Teflon — died of age-related causes at his home in Moscow, Idaho, on Saturday, his 103rd birthday.

His death was confirmed by the University of Idaho, where he taught for 17 years.

Teflon was the inadvertent discovery of Roy J. Plunkett, a DuPont chemist who was trying to develop a nontoxic refrigerant. When his lab assistant accidentally cracked the valve on a bottle of Freon gas they were testing, they examined the inside of the bottle and found the gas had turned into a slippery white powder with unique properties: heat, electricity, acids, solvents — nothing seemed to react with it.

The mystery substance was sent to Renfrew, who with his team "worked on developing methodology for making this in the lab" and pursued commercial applications, said Jean'ne Shreeve, a University of Idaho chemistry professor who knew Renfrew for more than 50 years.

Its first use outside the laboratory was top secret.

World War II was on when Renfrew and his superiors were contacted by a physics professor at Columbia University, who told them "there was a project being started to determine the outcome of the war," Renfrew recalled in the Lewiston (Idaho) Morning Tribune in 2007. "He could not tell us what it was, just that it required quantities of Teflon."

The project turned out to be the atomic bomb.

Impressed by the resin's noncorrosive properties, scientists at the Manhattan Project used it to coat the valves and seals of pipes that would hold a chemical necessary for the enrichment of uranium 235, the key ingredient in a nuclear chain reaction.

DuPont did not make Teflon known to the public until 1946, when Renfrew described its properties and commercial potential in a speech for the American Chemical Society.

Because his name appeared on the first scientific paper published, Renfrew was often referred to as Teflon's inventor, a mistake he was always quick to correct. Nor did he have any involvement in the invention of the product that made it famous: the non-stick frying pan introduced in the early 1960s.

He did, however, help develop other uses for Teflon, including a material used in dental repairs, said Ray von Wandruszka, who chairs the University of Idaho chemistry department. Teflon became one of the wonders of the 20th century, used to protect cars, boats, fabric, eyeglass lenses and space shuttles.

Malcolm MacKenzie Renfrew was born in Spokane, Wash., on Oct. 12, 1910, and grew up in Colfax, Wash., and Potlatch, Idaho.

He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from the University of Idaho before receiving a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1938. He worked at DuPont from 1938 to 1949.

After several years at other companies, including General Mills, he joined the University of Idaho faculty, in 1959. He eventually headed the physical science and chemistry departments and helped start doctoral programs in chemistry and physics. He retired in 1976.

He married Carol Campbell, a fellow University of Idaho student, in 1938. They had no children. She died in 2010.

Although his field was science, Renfrew "had a liberal arts perspective," said University of Idaho Provost Katherine Aiken. He painted watercolors and played trombone in the university's non-marching pep band.

He also had a twinkling sense of humor, which he displayed in jokes such as "Why are there interstate highways in Hawaii?" and "If nothing ever sticks to Teflon, how do they make Teflon stick to the pan?"

He undoubtedly knew the answer to that question.

"We knew it would be an important chemical," he once said of Teflon, "although it was not easy to fabricate. The frying pan thing. … I would never have imagined that."

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