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Obituary: Charles Wilke

22 October 2003


Charles Wilke
Charles R. Wilke, one of the founders of the Department of Chemical Engineering and a pioneer in the field of biochemical engineering, died Oct. 2 at his home in El Cerrito. He was 86 and had been battling cancer.

Wilke established an international reputation in the 1950s in the field of diffusion and mass transfer. He then shifted directions in the early 1960s to help establish the budding field of biochemical engineering. According to Harvey Blanch, a campus colleague, “Wilke’s early studies on the kinetics of microbial growth and gas-liquid mass transfer provided the engineering underpinnings for the revolution in molecular biology that was to come.”

Born in Ohio, Wilke put himself through the University of Dayton by playing trombone in a dance orchestra he organized. He received his M.S. from Washington State University and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. After brief stints with the Union Oil Company of California and Washington state, he joined the Berkeley faculty as an instructor of chemistry in 1946.

Rising through the ranks, Wilke became a full professor in 1953, after a shift in appointment to chemical engineering in 1949. He chaired the Division of Chemical Engineering between 1953 and 1956). When the Department of Chemical Engineering was established in 1957, he became its first chair — a position he held until 1963. Wilke guided the growth of the chemical engineering department from five faculty members to 16 and played a key role in making it preeminent at a time when the discipline was gaining social and economic importance. He became emeritus professor in 1987.

The author of more than 150 scholarly papers, Wilke mentored more than 100 M.S. and Ph.D. students. He also served for several years as assistant to the chancellor for academic affairs, was active on many campus committees, and was a faculty investigator at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Beyond the campus, he served as director of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. His work earned him the highest awards of his profession.

Wilke’s wife of 57 years, Bernice, died last March. He is survived by his sister-in-law, Mary Arnett, of Kensington.

Friends, students, and colleagues are establishing an endowed chair in chemical engineering in his honor. Memorial gifts to the Wilke Chair may be made payable to the UC Berkeley Foundation and sent to 420 Latimer Hall, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-1460. A memorial celebration of his life will be held at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 16, at the Faculty Club.