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In Memoriam: Kees Smolders

As cluster, faculty, and university, we mourn the loss of Professor Kees Smolders, who passed away on 4 January 2021 at the age of 90. Kees was a true pioneer in the field of Membrane Technology. He worked as a full professor between 1969 and 1991 at the THT, renamed to UT in 1986. While he started out as a professor in Colloid and Interface Chemistry, he was one of the first in the Netherlands to focus on a new field: the field of membranes. He was unique in his persuasiveness, making many others, scientists and businesses alike, enthusiastic for a field of science that was very new at the time. He quickly became a leading scientist in this field, especially through his work on understanding phase inversion, an approach to produce a wide variety of polymeric membranes that still has a high number of citations to this day. Kees was one of the first professors to co-operate with companies actively. For example, he was actively involved in the start-up of X-flow in the eighties, helping UT to establish itself as the entrepreneurial university that it is today. Kees was an honorary member of the European Membrane Society and supervised nearly 40 PhD students. The research that he started more than 50 years ago is still actively continued within the current Membrane Science and Technology (MST) cluster.

After his retirement, he remained closely involved in his old research group. Kees was a regular guest at PhD graduation ceremonies and every five years he organised a reunion for all his former PhD students with a hearty meal. On 10 May 2019, he held a last reunion at UT, where he enjoyed seeing his old colleagues and being brought up to date on the latest scientific developments in his field (see photo).    

Kees remained very active in other ways as well. After his retirement, he picked up painting, using acrylates, and later he also took up bronze sculpting. In 2016, Kees even donated one of his works of art, appropriately named “The Science Ladder”, to UT. The work is still proudly exhibited in the Diagonal of the Carré building; it shows a small man climbing up a double DNA helix. Kees described it in his own words: “It shows how you can grow in science. Scientists always want to climb to the top, to build up the best reputation.”

Professor Kees Smolders will be remembered a visionary scientist and a great teacher and mentor. He will be greatly missed.

Photo: Professor Kees Smolders with ”The Science Ladder”, designed and made by himself, now exhibited in the Diagonal of building Carré. The photo was taken at a reunion organised for him at UT on 10 May 2019.