While most foundations are, in some form or another, building up the legacy of their founders, a recent grant from the Beckman Foundation is funding a science history organization to do so quite literally.
The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation announced a four-year, $3 million grant to the Chemical Heritage Foundation for the Arnold O. Beckman Legacy Project, an effort to chronicle and educate the public about the scientific contributions of its namesake.
The CHF, a historical organization and museum in Philadelphia dedicated to the history of chemistry, will conduct original research, digitize archives, and create video and web content to remember the life and work of Beckman.
Again, while promotion of a foundation’s donor is nothing unusual, this is kind of a unique case in that it's directly funding research and public education on the man. Beckman passed away 10 years ago at the age of 104, and was remembered as a humble but influential scientist and later an influential philanthropist. And yet, his name remains largely unknown.
His influence is mostly connected to his first patent from 1934, when he developed the pH meter, originally as a way to test the sourness of lemons. By all accounts, the pH meter alone revolutionized modern chemistry. But that device and a string of following inventions were hugely important, in particular when it came to electronic measurement in chemistry. Devices created at his institute would be used to measure brainwaves, study blood and DNA, and even detect content of smog.
Beckman was important as a philanthropist, too. He and wife Mabel started their foundation in 1977, which has granted hundreds of millions to science research and education. It was the biggest private donor to American science during the 1980s. He was a huge funder of work at Caltech, in particular, but there are university buildings across the country bearing the Beckman name.
So while a $3 million grant might seem a bit, I don’t know, indulgent, in the case of Beckman, maybe sending some of that fortune back where it came from is well deserved.