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Remembering Dr. Bortrum
StocksandNews lost one of its major contributors this week, Dr. Bortrum, ‘Allen F. Bortrum,’ as he liked to say. He’s also my father, known to his family as Forrest Allen Trumbore.
When I gave Dad the opportunity to write a column for this site, he said he always wanted a ‘nom de plume,’ a pen name, and Bortrum it was.
It’s no big secret that Dr. Bortrum was the best thing on StocksandNews. I may have received a few more readers, but his column exuded the brain power I could never provide. I’d like to think we both have a sense of humor and the same edict. Try not to take yourself too seriously, though Bortrum did serious work.
Back in 1994, ‘Dr. Trumbore,’ was written up in a local paper here in Summit, New Jersey, for a rather unique occurrence.
Dad was born in Denver, Colorado, December 1927, but his family, including his younger brother, Conrad, ended up settling in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Just to digress quickly, my Uncle Conrad, who survives my father, is a brilliant scientist (physical chemist) in his own right, having set up shop at the University of Delaware, with which he still has an affiliation.
Once, when I was national sales manager at PIMCO Funds, I interviewed a young man, Tim A., and noticed he went to Delaware. “My Uncle Conrad is a professor there,” I observed. “I took a class from him. He was great!” said Tim.
Tim was hired. I was the easiest interview on Wall Street.
Anyway, Bortrum was a rather smart kid growing up and his mother, who ran the household, let him skip his last year or so of high school and Dad went directly to Dickinson College in next door Carlisle, Pa. He was 15 years old! He graduated from Dickinson when he was 18. He then received a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh (where he met my mother, a nursing school student) at age 22!
But he didn’t have a high school diploma. So, at the conclusion of the reunion dinner of the Mechanicsburg High School Class of 1944, it was announced that there was some unfinished business, and Dad was escorted to another room to don a cap and gown. Then, to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” he was led to the podium to be presented with his high school diploma by Mechanicsburg’s assistant superintendent of schools.
The next evening, at the general alumni association dinner, Dr. Bortrum was inducted into the Mechanicsburg High School Alumni Association Hall of Fame for “achievement in a chosen profession.”
Dad remarked that it took precisely three times as long to graduate from high school as to get his Ph.D., and that some people are just slow learners.
By the way, the superintendent of schools for Mechanicsburg back in 1944 declined to give my father a diploma because he, himself, had done the same thing and always regretted it.
So after getting the doctorate at Pitt, Bortrum worked as an aeronautical research scientist at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), or Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory (a forerunner of NASA). He then joined the Research Department at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J.
At Bell Labs, Dad worked initially in the materials aspects of semiconductor devices. This work dealt primarily with impurities in germanium, silicon and gallium phosphide, with emphasis on crystal growth, and a lot of stuff I never had any idea about. But I do recall his work on light emitting diodes, as in that which lights up, or used to light up, the numbers on your old Princess telephones. That was my father’s work. He was supervisor of this group, which ultimately led to the manufacture of such diodes by the Western Electric Co.
Dad then joined the Battery Development Department of Bell Labs in 1972. It was a tumultuous time. He was a brilliant researcher, but maybe not a good ‘supervisor,’ being the greatest guy on the planet, so he was reassigned. And he ends up being a co-inventor of the “niobium trisenlenide” rechargeable lithium battery, later developed as the AT&T Faraday cell.
Understand that at this time, I was generally in my high school years, my brother, six years older, was off to Dickinson College (a legacy), and conversation around the dinner table was centering on Dad getting his battery life from 60 to 70 minutes, if I recall correctly. Yours truly, not understanding the true greatness that was taking place, would let out a derisive cheer. [I really can be an idiot.]
But old Dad was doing great things for all of us and the future. Even, whether you want to believe it or not, for someone like Elon Musk, down the road. There was AWESOME stuff going on at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, and a related facility in Holmdel, N.J. All of this is chronicled in our Dr. Bortrum’s own columns, which is the best history of Bell Labs, period. Others have written good ‘books,’ but my father knew, and/or worked with, some of the greatest scientists of our time. Multiple Nobel Prize winners.
It was funny, how in his last few years, when I’d go up to his office and he’d show me an obituary or technical paper he was reading on the computer from one of his former colleagues, that for the first time, Dad was rather disappointed he didn’t win a Nobel Prize himself.
What you learn, like with a lot of stuff in life, is it’s political. Dad was never one to make sure he received credit for the work he had done, while others attached their names to certain ‘papers’ that were key to the Nobel process.
His paper on gallium phosphide, at least as of like ten years ago, was still the definitive work in physical chemistry textbooks.
Anyway, to get more technical, and from one of his bios, “(Dad’s) work on rechargeable lithium batteries included studies on various cathode materials, lithium cycling efficiency studies, and the design and software for automated battery test facilities. Trumbore also was involved in testing, evaluation and specification writing for the use of primary lithium batteries in the old Bell System.”
Meanwhile, during this time I was a middling cross-country runner and ‘decent’ student at Summit High School who went on to card one of the worst academic records in the history of Wake Forest…but I got out in four years!
‘Dr. Trumbore’ served as Secretary of The Electrochemical Society (ECS), as Vice-Chairman of the Electronics Division and as chairman or member of numerous committees of the ECS. He was the first recipient of the Electronics Division Award for his work on semiconductors. He was an Honorary Member of the ECS, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I’m leaving out tons of stuff. The other day, as I was going through same at the house, I came across a copy of the History of the ECS that he co-wrote.
After Dad retired from Bell Labs, he worked as a consultant with a few startups, including SAGE Electrochromatics, now owned by Saint-Gobain, that was involved in the manufacture of ‘smart glass.’
I bring this up because Dad was a shareholder, and for a spell chief chemist, and Saint-Gobain acquired the company in 2010. Dad gave a few shares to my brother and I, which we duly spent on beer, my brother of the craft variety, me Coors Light.
So a few weeks ago the three of us get this letter from the ‘escrow agents’ for the merger. Eleven years later, we had to fill out a document to receive whatever proceeds were left over. I mean, c’mon…eleven years!
I got poor Dad to scribble something, in his weakened state, and my brother and I are guessing it’s enough for perhaps a six-pack.
But Dad was also an Adjunct Professor in the Bioengineering Section of the Department of Surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Medical School.
For over ten years, I’ve known he was donating his body to medical research at RWJ, and for this reason, I have had their 800# plastered all over my place and in my wallet. I learned this week that his brother, Conrad, is also donating his body. And you know what, I’m thinking of doing the same. It’s much easier on the family, for starters.
But I have a quick, important tip, for the one or two readers who are also giving their bodies to science. Let’s say you signed up for it ten years ago. I happened to call Rutgers about six weeks ago just to confirm Dad was still on the list, which he was, but I had no idea he needed new paperwork because of Covid! My brother and I quickly signed off. If we hadn’t done so, we wouldn’t have fulfilled his last wish! I would have never been able to live with myself. When I advised my uncle of this this week, he thanked me.
So when I received the death call at 4:35 a.m. Monday morning, my first call was not to my brother (he understands) but to Rutgers and within two minutes, a guy from RWJ was telling me when they would be picking up his body from the hospice. I’ve heard the medical students treat such bodies with reverence, and that they have some kind of background on their subject.
They will treat Dad with respect. My brother and I, and Dad’s brother, always did the same.
This was a great man. The most humble person you’d ever meet. He was loved by all who came in contact with him. Forrest Allen Trumbore, or as he might prefer, Allen F. Bortrum, leaves this earth having made a tremendous contribution to society and the scientific world.