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October 21, 2013 at 10:14 AM

Malcolm Renfrew, the man who oversaw Teflon’s development, dies at 103

By Shawn Vestal
The Spokesman Review / MCT

MOSCOW, Idaho — Malcolm Renfrew didn’t invent Teflon.

But one of the fascinating developments of Renfrew’s fascinating life was that he frequently had to correct people who said he did. It was Renfrew — a son of Spokane who went on to a long, distinguished association with the University of Idaho — who introduced the stuff to the world and who oversaw the team that developed uses for the miracle plastic to which nothing would stick.

Over the past half-century, Teflon has found its way into everything from medical to military applications, but its most famous use — apart from its metaphorical perfection for describing slippery people — is the nonstick frying pan.

“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.”

Renfrew died Saturday in his Moscow home. It was his 103rd birthday. His influence lingers all over the University of Idaho campus — from Renfrew Hall, to the Renfrew lecture series, to the Renfrew fellowship endowment. He helped create the university’s chemistry department and guided decades of scientists through their educations. He painted watercolors of Palouse scenes and played trombone in the Vandal Boosters Non-Marching Pep Band. Two years ago, his birthday was declared Malcolm Renfrew Day in Idaho.

Still, it was his role as a DuPont chemist developing Teflon in the 1930s and ’40s that became his obituary headline.

Renfrew presented the first paper on the substance — titled “Polytetrafluorethylene: heat-resistant, chemically inert plastic” — at a meeting of the American Chemistry Society in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1946; the story was picked up by wire services and ran in newspapers around the country.

“PLASTIC DEFIES HEAT AND ACIDS” read a small headline in The Spokesman-Review at the time. The article quoted Renfrew as saying, “No substance has been found which will dissolve or even swell” the plastic.

Renfrew gave a more colorful account of the speech and surrounding events, including some shenanigans with “barfly newsmen,” in an interview he gave in 1987 to the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

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