Britton Chance: 1913 – 2010

Britton Chance, M.D., Ph.D., D.Sc., for more than 50 years one of the giants of biochemistry and biophysics and a world leader in transforming theoretical science into useful biomedical and clinical applications, died on November 16, 2010, at age 97 in Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Chance had the rare distinction of being the recipient of a National Medal of Science (1974), a Gold Medal in the Olympics (1952, Sailing, Men’s 5.5 Meter Class), and a Certificate of Merit for his sensitive work during World War II. He also was rare in being elected not only to the U.S. National Academy of Science but also to foreign academies such as The Royal Society of London and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. England and Sweden were countries where he did seminal and formative research.

The Eldridge Reeves Johnson Emeritus Professor of Biophysics, Physical Chemistry, and Radiologic Physics at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Chance was known for his amazingly broad range of interests, his long history of fruitful collaboration with scientists all around the globe, and his unflagging energy. Even in his late 80s and early 90s, Dr. Chance could be spotted riding his bicycle on the Penn campus, arriving at his laboratory in the early morning. For him, “emeritus” certainly did not mean inactive or inattentive. As he once told The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Art Carey, “Retire? Why would I do that? I enjoy research and I work with a wonderful crew. I like the excitement of new discoveries, moving ahead, finding out new things.” In 2001, still in pursuit of new things, Dr. Chance unveiled a detection technique, developed with collaborators at Penn and Harvard, that uses fluorescent molecules to track and illuminate malignant cells in the breast. Even more recently, he was part of a team that proposed developing a portable, real-time system for monitoring and imaging brain function.

Dr. Chance was born on July 24, 1913, in Wilkes-Barre, PA. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Haverford, PA. Growing up, he developed a passion for sailing and early displayed an uncanny knack for invention. These interests came together early when as a teenager he invented and patented a novel automatic ship steering device that he later was contracted by the British General Electric Company to test in a 20,000 ton freighter between England and Australia. His passion for sailing has never waned. “I wouldn’t be without sailing,” he told The Scientist. “That would be unendurable for me.” In the same way, his skills with electro-optical devices would serve the instrumentation and the biomedical research communities and his country to the end of his long working life.

In 1935, Dr. Chance earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania. As a graduate student at Penn, he developed a microflow version of a stop-flow apparatus to study enzyme mechanisms observing their changing compositions in the millisecond times. Back in England, Dr. Chance worked with the originators of the flow apparatus technique at Cambridge University. With these unique instruments he made important research contributions, fundamental and applied: he demonstrated the long-predicted but never-seen enzyme-substrate complex, which explains why he named his yachts Complex I and so on. He discovered that biological electron transfer – vital to respiration, photosynthesis, and oxidative metabolism – was quantum-mechanical tunneling, an understanding that now underpins engineering of nanoscale electronic devices. Dr. Chance played a pivotal role in determining bioenergetic activities in cells. These discoveries culminated in the 1980s in his pioneering work in magnetic resonance spectroscopy imaging in humans, and in the 1990s in his initiating the application of near-infrared optics for the clinical diagnosis of r breast cancer, muscle dynamics, and cognition. His pioneering research transformed the field of biomedical optics.

Upon his return to the United States from Cambridge University, Dr. Chance became a fellow in Penn’s Eldridge Reeves Johnson Foundation for Research in Medical Physics, where he completed his first study on enzyme kinetics. He earned his Ph.D. degree in physical chemistry in 1940. Two years later, he received a second doctorate – in biology and physiology – from Cambridge. When the United States entered World War II, Dr. Chance was recruited to M.I.T. to work in its Radiation Laboratory, as part of a secret team focused on developing and enhancing radar. Despite his relative youth, he became a group leader and, later, a member of the steering committee; by the time he left the laboratory, he was supervising some 300 people. During that time, he also invented a “ground position indicator” for more accurate bombing. For his work in this field, Dr. Chance was awarded the President’s Certificate of Merit in 1950.
As the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, Dr. Chance spent two years at Sweden’s Nobel Institute and at Cambridge studying enzymes. In 1949, back at Penn as professor of biophysics and physical biochemistry, Dr. Chance was appointed to director of the Johnson Foundation. Under Dr. Chance, the foundation was widely recognized as a stimulating research environment. He held the position until 1983. For part of that time, he also served as chair of the Department of Biophysics and Physical Biochemistry. In 1964, he was named the Eldridge Reeves Johnson Professor. In the 1990s, Dr. Chance was director of the Institute for Biophysical and Biomedical Research, part of the University City Science Center; and in 1998, he became president of the Medical Diagnostic Research Foundation.

Dr. Chance’s earlier work on enzymes was fundamental to the understanding of how oxygen is used in the body to provide energy and to a broader knowledge of the diseases that result from a lack of energy. He also invented the dual-wavelength spectrophotometer, and his other discoveries formed the basis for the glucosometers in use today. More recently, turning his attention to optical diagnostics, he remained very active. Mark Lemmon, Ph.D., Penn’s chair of Biophysics and Biochemistry, notes that Dr. Chance was continuously funded for 70 years and several papers were published in 2010. Over his career, Dr. Chance had six papers that reached more than 1,000 citations.
These contributions did not go unnoticed. Apart from foreign membership in the academies of many countries, Dr. Chance has received honorary degrees from Penn and several other international universities. Other honors included the Franklin Medal from Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute; the Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics from the Netherlands Academy of Science and Letters; the Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Sciences, given by the American Philosophical Society (for which he served as vice president); and the Christopher Columbus Discovery Award in Biomedical Research, from the National Institutes of Health. In 1995, the University of Pennsylvania named the Stellar-Chance Laboratories partly in his honor.

With his family, Dr. Chance spent summers in Ocean City, Seaside Park and Mantoloking, New Jersey. A lifelong sailor, he won innumerable Barnegat Bay Yacht Racing Association championships from the 1930s to the 1950s. Dr. Chance went on to win an Olympic Gold medal in 5.5 meter sailing in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland and the 5.5 Meter World Championship in 1962 in England.  He also competed in most Olympic sailing trials during the 1950s and 1960s. In 2004, he became one of the first inductees into the Barnegat Bay Sailing Hall of Fame. Dr. Chance instilled his love of the sport in his children and grandchildren, who continue the family tradition of excellence in sailing.
Dr. Chance married Shoko Nioka, Ph.D., his longtime companion and research associate, in February 2010. In addition to Dr. Nioka, he is survived by former wives Jane Earle Lindenmayer and Lilian Streeter Chance, 16 children and step-children, 28 grandchildren, and 5 great grandchildren.  He will be remembered by his family not only for his larger-than-life presence and accomplishments, but also for the many and varied opportunities he provided for those under his wing, and for the innumerable evenings he and his family spent around his piano singing show tunes.

Gifts in Dr. Chance’s memory can be made to the Johnson Research Foundation, payable to the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Medicine Development, Suite 750, 3535 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-3309.

Family and friends are invited to a memorial service on Friday, December 10 at 11:00 AM at the University of Pennsylvania in Houston Hall, Hall of Flags, 3417 Spruce Street, Philadelphia. The University of Pennsylvania is planning a memorial service for colleagues to honor Dr. Chance and his accomplishments early in the new year.