In Memoriam: Burnaby Munson “A Chemist, not a Lawyer”

Spring @UD
Emily Moore /THE

Burnaby Munson passed away on June 23, 2019.

Staff Reporter

Burnaby Munson passed away on June 23, 2019.

Munson, a retired university chemistry professor, researcher and director of the university honors program, worked for more than 50 years as an educator at the university.

He was 86 when he passed but will be remembered as a cornerstone of the university community, having educated more than 46,000 students as well as leading the honors program both in status and spirit.

At the 170th Commencement Ceremony this past May, Munson received an honorary doctor of science degree in celebration of a lifetime of outstanding dedication. John R. Cochran, chair of the Board of Trustees of the university, wrote the citation that honored Munson.

“Dr. Munson, you were the rare teacher who combined brilliance and warmth,” Cochran said. “You expected much of your students, but you also knew how to instill in them both passion for the subject and belief in their abilities. You have been a gift to your students and to the greater University of Delaware community.”

Honors alumni from the past 40 years met on June 7 to celebrate with Munson as he was saluted in an Alumni Reception at the Honors Program building. Past students and their families had what would be their last chance to catch up with Munson, a man who helped guide their learning and professional lives as they stayed in touch since their college years.

Just days later Munson passed away peacefully, shortly after receiving one of the highest honors the university can extend.

Munson was born on March 20, 1933 in the small town of Wharton, Texas, to Milam Munson Jr. and Emily Burnaby. His mother was a librarian and his father was a lawyer, following a three-generation Munson family tradition.

Disinterested in law, Munson would break the family trend as he entered Tarleton State College in Central Texas. He then transferred to the University of Texas at Austin after discovering his passion for physical chemistry.

In Austin, Munson completed his PhD in 1959 and went on to work with Humble Oil in Bayton, Texas, working on the development of solution thermodynamics. Later, he began work at Esso Oil, the predecessor of Exxon.

Munson all the while stayed collegial, giving lectures while studying the field of ion chemistry in mass spectrometry. An instrumental researcher, Munson worked alongside with chemist Frank H. Field in developing the field of chemical ionization in 1966, a powerful tool for identifying organic molecules.

Shortly afterwards, Munson left the private sector and joined the university faculty in 1967 as an associate professor, continuing to work in education until just a year before he passed. Munson retired last year, having taught an estimated 8,000 hours of class time: an award-winning lifetime of education with the unique honor of teaching the children of former students.

Even while teaching multiple classes every week with hundreds of students in attendance, Munson continued to lead his scientific field, publishing over 79 academic papers. Munson was also a contributing member of the American Society of Mass Spectrometry and served as president for a time.

He was cited by the Nobel committee when it awarded John Fenn and Koichi Tanaka the Nobel Prize in 2002; Munson’s work on chemical ionization mass spectrometry made it possible for Fenn and Tanaka to complete their research.

But Munson was not just a research powerhouse— he enjoyed spending time with the university’s students as a mentor. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Honors College in the fall of 1976, an organization that he would lead as director off and on throughout the following four decades.

Yet despite this distinction of authority, Munson always maintained an approachable stance of leadership.

The Munson Fellows program began as a social study break hosted by Munson every week, and now stands as a living testament to the dedication of a tireless educator. Munson would meet his students in the Honors Living Learning Community at around 9 p.m. after the labs closed, providing junk food to relax and blow off steam, serving as a guiding light for students in need.

Now, the Munson Fellows remains an organization of older honors students living among first-year honors freshmen with a commitment to guiding the newcomers with help and support, like Munson did.

Finally, in 2018, Munson submitted his one-year notice.

As reported by The Review, Munson said he was still enjoying his work, but was wearing out and suspected it was time he left. Munson was a staple on campus up until his last day, speeding by on his Segway to class while waving to students. He said that he was proud and satisfied of the tradition of the Munson Fellows and Wednesday night study breaks, but he believed his tradition would live on— that they didn’t need him anymore.

He is survived by his niece and two nephews. His niece, Joyce Kavanaugh, and one of his nephews, Ward Patton, are both from Appleton, Wisconsin. His other nephew, Stephen Patton, is from Rock Island, Illinois. His grandniece and two grandnephews also survive him.

A memorial service will be held October 4 at 4 p.m. in Mitchell Hall for anybody who wants to celebrate the impactful life of Burnaby Munson.

In a video interview conducted as an introduction for the 2017 freshman honors class, Munson was asked for insight into his work as an honors professor. He smiled kindly, making the interviewer giggle as he described his lifetime of teaching, as well as the fond memories he had leaving the lab on late nights to spend time relaxing at a study group.

“I think its fun, I enjoy working with students,” Munson said in the video. “I also think it’s important. In class if you see someone changing expression, that means they’re actually listening and paying attention.”

As he said this, he gave a smile, and a big thumbs up.

He was buried in a family cemetery in Angleton, Texas, returning home to the Lone Star State. In classic Munson humor, Munson wrote his epitaph to say “A Chemist, not a Lawyer.”

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