By Marlys Amundson
Lawrence B. Robinson, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and an expert in thermodynamics and energy conversion devices, died March 21 at his home in Los Angeles of natural causes. He was 85.
“All of us who knew Larry personally can fully appreciate that the University has lost one of its finest gentlemen and scholars,” said Dean Vijay K. Dhir. “He will be missed tremendously.”
Robinson became a member of the UCLA engineering faculty in 1960 as an associate professor at what was then the College of Engineering. He was promoted to full professor two years later. Robinson taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses in thermodynamics, nuclear reactor engineering, properties of materials, and chemical physics, among other topics. From 1984 to 1986, Robinson served as Vice Chair and Acting Chair of the Chemical Engineering Department, as Assistant Dean from 1969 to 1974, and as Associate Dean of the School from 1985 to 1990. He retired in 1990, although he remained an active member of the faculty and continued to teach for many years.
During his career, Robinson’s research interests included the surface tension of electrolytes, neutron physics, reactor theory, the magnetic properties of solids and nonequilibrium thermodynamics.
In 1962, Robinson and his colleagues were deeply involved with fundamental research in the theory of electrons in metal, particularly as pertaining to thermal and magnetic phenomena and rare-earth metals and their alloys. They planned and executed a series of highly novel experiments aimed at elucidating basic – as well as anomalous – magnetic and thermal behavior. Their work led to a series of pioneering papers that contributed significantly to the understanding of magnetic phenomena in the rare-earth metals and alloys as based on indirect exchange coupling (via conduction electron) of magnetic moments. The work also demonstrated – for the first time – that ferromagnetic behavior could be made to disappear not only via heating but also through the application of high pressure.
He brought a fundamental knowledge of physics and thermodynamics to UCLA, and both his students and colleagues benefited from his broad, interdisciplinary background. With other faculty in the department, he provided undergraduates students with more advanced training in theoretical thermodynamics than they could have received at another institution at the time. He served as an advisor to not only engineering PhD candidates during his career, but also to students majoring in physics.
Robinson was an assistant professor of physics at Howard University in Washington, D.C., from 1946 to 1947, returning in 1948 as an associate professor. He also was an assistant professor at Brooklyn College in New York, and a visiting professor at Rhinesche Westhalishe Technishe Hochschule in Germany.
He spent several years working in industry before coming to UCLA. He was a research engineer at North American Aviation and a research physicist at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. Robinson was a member of the technical staff at Ramo-Wooldridge Corp and Space Technology Labs before joining the UCLA faculty.
Robinson was a member of many professional societies, including the American Physical Society, the New York Academy of Sciences, the honorary physics society, Sigma Pi Sigma, and Tau Beta Pi, the honorary engineering society. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as a National Science Foundation Senior post-doctorial fellowship. He also received an honorary Doctorate of Science from Virginia Union University, his undergraduate alma mater.
He was born in Tappahannock, Virginia, and received his BS in mathematics from the Virginia Union University in 1939. He earned his MS in chemistry and PhD in chemical physics from Harvard University in 1941 and 1946, respectively. In 1943, he served his country in the Army Air Corps.
He had a life long interest in the Old West, especially its art, and was a founding member of the Collegium of Western Art, as well as a member of The Westerners, an organization devoted to the history of the American West. Robinson also served on the board of The American Art Council for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Robinson is survived by his wife Laura, three children, Lyn Adrian, Gwendolyn Harvey, and Lawrence Baylor Jr., grandson Robinson Abraham Farber, sister Josephine Burton, two brothers, Dr. Luther Robinson and Dr. Julian Robinson, and many nieces and nephews. He will be deeply missed by his family, friends and colleagues.