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Joe Mauk Smith

Professor of Chemical Engineering, Emeritus

UC Davis

1916 — 2009


Joe Mauk Smith, professor of chemical engineering emeritus, died at his Davis home on June 7, 2009 at the age of 93. Joe was a giant in the field of chemical engineering, possibly the most influential chemical engineering educator ever.


“Joe Smith brought credibility to the early days of the College of Engineering, establishing a standard of excellence that has guided us for nearly 50 years,” said Bruce White, dean of the College of Engineering. “He was one of our first faculty members to be inducted into the National Academy of Engineering, and with great generosity for the College established his department's first endowed chair. His contributions will not be forgotten. We also will remember fondly his never-ending commitment to his wife, Essie.”


Joe was born in Sterling, Colorado, on February 14, 1916 and his family moved to Long Beach, California shortly after his birth. His early education was in the public schools in Long Beach, graduating from Long Beach Polytechnic High School. There he had a very good math teacher and a very good chemistry teacher who stimulated his love of those subjects.


He was admitted to the California Institute of Technology and his family moved to Pasadena so that he could afford to attend Caltech by living at home. He majored in applied chemistry, the name given to many chemical engineering programs at that time, graduating in 1937.


After graduation, Joe spent four years in the oil industry, working for Texaco and then Chevron. While at Chevron, he decided that the opportunities for advanced studies in chemical engineering were limited and career advancement would require moving into administration. So in 1941 he resumed his education, receiving his D.Sc. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1943. He immediately started his academic career, teaching for one year at the University of Maryland. It was there that he met and married his wife, Essie McCutcheon. In 1945 he moved to Purdue University where he taught until 1957. He then served as dean of Technology at the University of New Hampshire for a year before moving to Northwestern University as the chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering. In 1961 he was hired by UC Davis to lay the groundwork for the anticipated creation of the College of Engineering in 1962. He founded the Department of Chemical Engineering and served as department chair until 1972. After mandatory retirement in 1986, he remained active in the department.


Joe was one of the most influential chemical engineering educators in the history of the profession. He started his academic career near the end of WW II, a time of great change in chemical engineering. Shortly after arriving at Purdue, he started writing Introduction to Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics. Drafts of the text were used at Purdue until 1949, when the first edition was published. Hendrick Van Ness joined him as co-author of the second edition, published in 1959. Sixty years later and in the seventh edition, with third co-author M.M. Abbott, the work is still in use and by far the best-selling textbook in the history of chemical engineering. While still at Purdue, Joe wrote a second textbook, Chemical Engineering Kinetics, which also became the seminal text in the field, significantly changing the way chemical reaction engineering is taught.


“There has not been, and may never be, a text in any field of engineering that has been as influential as Joe's thermodynamics book. By virtue of his textbooks, he is arguably the most influential educator in the history of chemical engineering,” said Bob Powell, chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. “He certainly has set the standard for the department and for the college. And until a few years ago, he remained active in the department and was a fixture at our annual Picnic Day barbeque. He was truly a unique individual and will be sorely missed.” 


Joe was world renowned for his research in reaction kinetics and reactor design. He published over 350 scientific papers and received nearly every honor his profession offers. In 1975 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for his “leadership in chemical reaction kinetics and thermodynamics and teaching of these subjects.” He also received four Fulbright Fellowships and one Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1970, he was selected the UC Davis Faculty Research Lecturer, the highest honor the campus can bestow.


Joe loved teaching, and students appreciated his individualized approach to education. His teaching style was greatly influenced by one of his professors at Caltech and many of his students are now professors emulating his style. His influential textbooks are testaments to his commitment to teaching. He regarded the awards he received for outstanding contributions to education as his proudest achievements.


Joe and his wife endowed the Joe and Essie Smith Chair in Chemical Engineering in 1996. The chair is dedicated to the support of outstanding young faculty members.


He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Essie, two daughters, Rebecca Conrad and Marsha Torbert, six grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and an untold number of academic children and grandchildren.


Alan Jackman

Ben McCoy

Pieter Stroeve