In Memoriam

Here you may add your own thoughts, recollections, and memories of Britton Chance.  You may have known him as Doctor, Britton, Brit, Dad, BC, or D, but we all have fond memories of him. [Note: Comments are moderated. Your note will not be posted immediately.]

16 comments to In Memoriam

  • Ben Chance

    Today is a week after BC passed and I still have trouble believing he is gone – what a fantastic figure he carved through our lives and so many great memories. Today’s memory is of talking with him just this summer about the escows and how much he loved sailing – he recounted at length and with quite some relish about his first years on the scows. I will post my memories as they come. A great father who will be missed!

  • Rusty Morgan

    Thanks Ben for the memory. We have all been so fortunate to have known BC. Without his influence in my life I feel that I would have taken a much different path, as I’m sure we all do. I remember spending hours with him, working on the Sharpie in Waretown, both of us filthy from scrubbing the bilge and rewiring using “liquid electrical tape”, which he reasoned was the best stuff although it seemed to end up soiling the whole boat in sticky black goo! Then we would sit in the shade of the tree and eat Shoko’s delicacies as I would prod D for old stories.

  • Ruthie Mesnard

    This past July, I was talking with De on the 1219 porch and I was explaining how at the dinner dance the power had gone out. The conversation moved on but after a couple minutes there was a lull in the conversation and De, in his croaky, quiet voice just said, “dancing by the moonlight. how romantic.” I was so surprised and happy that not only was he listening to all of us, but he also had a witty, comical twist on things. Although I have always admired De for his success in each field he tackled, this one, somewhat small, offhand comment really revealed a separate side of De as funny, sharp and still a little bit romantic, even at the age of 97.

  • Avery Lucas

    When I was about 12 years old, My dad, brother and I had visited De at his house in Waretown, NJ for a night. The visit was short and pleasant, but one specific memory I have is waking up the next morning. It was barely 6 a.m., and I heard a lot of beeping sounds and strange noises coming from downstairs. This continued to occur for about twenty minutes, and as a curious preteen, I decided to investigate. I walked downstairs to find De at this enormous Morse code machine with huge headphones on, by himself, happy as could be. He turned around and saw me, and invited me to join. I sat for about five minutes as he tried to explain the various codes and what they meant, and although I couldn’t tell anyone the difference between a “dash” and a “dot,” De took his time from his daily routine to teach me a lesson, and give me a lifelong memory of him.

  • Annie Lucas Mesnard

    Well, we Lucas-Chances just returned to our respective homes after spending Thanksgiving reminiscing about De. A couple of us are saving the best for the memorial, but there were a lot of memories – and not all of them fit for a family publication. Jer, Billy, and I feel that De opened up avenues and gave us opportunities so much so that we owe our current positions in life to him – we are true “Opportunity Recipients”. In many ways, he was “too busy” for us and yet in other ways, he manufactured the time to teach us Morse Code, tell De stories, and play show tunes every night. Bill & I visited De on November 11th (Veteran’s Day) and we talked about the War. I asked where he was on Pearl Harbor Day, but I could not catch his reply. I told him I had had my piano lesson that morning and he asked what was I playing. Those were his last words to me. I will cherish them forever.

  • De was a great father to me. Some of the best times in my life happened under his watch. I will never forget sailing from Helsinki to Stockholm in Complex III (I think), along with Peter, Jan, Ann and Ma. We had some rough weather, which made it all the more exciting. I really bonded with De when Pete and I crewed for him in the Worlds (Copenhagen – 1966) and Olympic Trials (Calif, 1968) even though Britty ended up as the skipper. The three of us trained most weekends, weather permitting, prior to both of these matches. Teamwork was everything; De instilled that in us. I was also pleasantly surprised when De would ask us tactics, such as whether to tack now or not to make the mark. Even if we tacked too early, De never really got mad because he did not want us to be too conservative the next time.

    I was glad to see De in late October at Waretown, fixing his antenna and going over the Taiwan clinical trials of his breast cancer device. I am sorry he did not see if come to final commercial success but am confident it will.
    Jerry Lucas

  • Molly Mesnard

    My fondest memories of De were during our annual sailing trips from The Key’s. All the cousins of age would head down in mid-February and set sail for a 4-day adventure. There are so many fantastic recollections from these trips, from exploring the mangroves, sleeping under the stars, to spotting wildlife, including stingrays, flamingoes and barracuda. Even my one “bad” experience, which was a result of my own doing, turned into a rather fond memory and lesson learned: while running around being an obnoxious tween I hastily stepped down and knocked off a navigation device. Needless to say I was terrified and upset that I had led us all to our doom to be lost in the ocean forever, but of course no one will be surprised to learn that De dexterously fidgeted with some wires and hooked it back up with some duct tape. We were soon on our way…and the duct tape contraption was still there the following year.

    I am so grateful that De included me, technically his ex-step-grandchild, on these one-of-a-kind experiences. De gave me an extended family that I will never stop learning about and from, as well as cousins that have subsequently become my best friends and future companions for whom I will have many more wonderful De-inspired memories to share.

  • Jan Morgan

    I am so grateful De was in my life and the lives of my children. He pushed, prodded, listened and encouraged and through that made us all different; better. Most of all, he gave me all of you, a loving extended family and friends for whom I am eternally grateful. The memories are so many. Perhaps one of my most fond is waking up on the deck of the Sharpie to the loud quack of a duck at sunrise off the Marathon shore. De was sitting up watching the sunrise and we shared a few quite words before the masses woke. The opportunity to share the peace and expanse of that morning was one of many unexpected and precious moments I was so lucky to share with the man who was my father. I love him and miss him dearly.

  • Charlie Tracy

    Remembrances of Britton Chance

    BC was my surrogate father as teenager. He came into my life after I gave Jerry Lucas a hand following a spill off his bike. I helped him home to 1219 and was immediately drawn into the family. Everyone had a boat and there was a constant need for help with them. BC encouraged me to lend a hand. I was drawn to him from the first by his generosity and acceptance. And who can forget his ability to multitask, child on his knee, editing a manuscript, transcribing a coded weather report, a watchful eye out the picture window, but always having time for a question. He turned me loose and let me learn from my mistakes. Years later he gave me a summer job at Penn and would also hire me for a week at a time over my breaks from school. My first assignment was to repair an ancient radar oscilloscope with no manual. It was a test of patience and persistence, not technical skill. He gave me progressively more serious assignments culminating in debugging a new creation of his, a rotating slit spectrophotometer. I cherished his late night drop-in visits of challenge and encouragement. He taught me how to give seminars by requiring me to present my work (including my thesis from Cornell) to the regular luncheon meetings of the Johnson Foundation faculty. Some of our best conversations came while chauffeuring him on weekends back and forth to and from Mantoloking. He is and always will be in my thoughts daily.
    Charlie Tracy

  • Alison Kent

    Thinking of all of you in these days and especially on Friday. I am sorry I can’t be there.

    The hundreds of photographs of my mother and uncle in Mantoloking taken by Brit in the 1930s and then his warm hospitality 70 years later when I came to Philadelphia to stomp around genealogically with Maggie — bookends on a fascinating life of someone whose ravenous curiosity took many forms. I really hope I’m riding my bike to work in my 90s!

    Hugs to all,

  • Les Dutton

    We’ve been reading in Britton Chance’s recent obituaries about his extraordinary life of achievement in science and in sailing. But obituaries cannot convey adequately. They don’t answer: how did he accomplish what he did; why was he so outstanding and for so long, what was it that drove him?

    No doubt these questions will be answered in the next few years. Britton Chance has left a rich resource for future science historians to determine the roots of his success. We know this because, beyond all his recorded work, we know that Brit never threw anything away! Moreover he wrote every thought down in HB pencil in his Quadrille notebooks that he loved so much.

    But here today we can peek into what powered his inexhaustible energy and intellect. There is no doubt that the raison d’etre for his science was his own curiosity to find out how anything works.

    We have learned that as a child and young man he showed remarkable capacity for invention, a capacity that many of us have seen throughout his entire research life provide the vehicles to satisfy that Britton Chance curiosity and factually reveal how things work!

    We read that at Penn he was a physical chemist, but it is clear that his course work went far beyond this to take deep forays into biology and microbiology. This prepared him for his future research in biochemistry and biophysics.

    But it was his genius for braiding with biology the threads of his understanding of mechanics, of electronics and of light at any wavelength into practical working devices that ultimately that set him apart.

    Another of Brit’s characteristics, once mentioned to me by his brother Henry, was that Brit never did anything without a reason. So when he was invited to England to see his automatic ships steering fitted into a 20,000ton freighter, he took the opportunity to visit Cambridge University. Scientists there were using similar methods to those he developed for his Ph. D at Penn.

    At Penn Brit had invented a rapid flow device that could follow the millisecond color changes of chemical reactions. At Cambridge, fellow American Glenn Millikan and F.J.W. Roughton were doing similar things but with biological reactions like oxygen binding and transport by myoglobin and hemoglobin.

    Nearby at the Molteno Institute, David Keilin was measuring color changes in moth wing muscle during flight with a hand held spectroscope. Keilin was looking for the first time at muscular energy conversion. The Cambridge researchers strongly believed that the secrets of enzyme action and respiratory energy conversion could be unlocked by looking at the reactions as they unfold in time.

    Brit needed no persuasion: he obtained another Ph.D at Cambridge under Millikan’s supervision and forever moved his interests to the determination of enzyme mechanisms and cellular energy conversion. He brought his own elevated brand of instrumental creativity to this new field. He designed a series of stopped flow machines to measure these reactions and never looked back. A flood of seminal descriptions of biological mechanisms was about to begin that assumed full flow when he took over the Johnson Research Foundation at the end of the 1940s. The flood has continued since.

    Brit organized the Johnson Foundation based on his experiences at the Rad Lab at MIT during the WWII where he supervised an unwieldy 300 people. This convinced him that small groups headed by independent investigators was the way to high productivity and, not least, a way to keep himself maximally creative in the lab.

    Over the next decades a succession of different instrument developments defined the next set of major discoveries in cellular oxidative metabolism, in photosynthesis and respiration.

    The prospect of working with Brit, the JF attracted many people from around the world. Many were visiting scientists who wanted to extend their own work with cutting edge, often one-off instrumentation. The JF was a crowded place. There was no room for falling out with colleagues because there was no room.

    Brit cycled to and from his office over a 14 hour period of any weekday. He was available to see anyone anytime. He was always affable and warm with all his students, post-docs and visitors. He treated everyone the same. Indeed he often became very close to people he worked with, remaining so for many years after.

    With the JF in full swing in the 60s and 70s, Brit was well looked after by Mr. Tom Redmond. Tom was Brit’s driver who helped Brit minimize time away from the lab. He also prepared Brit’s early morning tea and toast; he and Brit had a very warm relationship. Tom was particularly caring about Brit’s tea; I often noticed that on his way from the kitchen to Brit’s office Tom would take a sip from the cup to make sure it was just right!
    The only requirement for JF members was the seminar between noon and one o’ clock that occurred every day. Tom served quite unappealing Wonderbread sandwiches and Chips to Brit and a few others. I think Brit digested food best when he was being talked to.

    The seminar chairman, usually a post doc, had the task of keeping the speaker to within the allotted hour. Sometimes it was tense. One time when I was the seminar chairman a speaker was still in his preamble at 12-50 pm. I suddenly saw this little ball of paper roll from under the table. As usual, Brit was on the other side. It rolled passed me and bumped against the speaker’s podium. I got up to retrieve it and unrolled it. It said, “Ask him to summarize.”

    Brit was often tired from long hours working, but he could recover amazingly with short catnaps. The first time he dozed off while I was telling him about some experiments was in his office. After a few uncertain moments, I quietly retreated from the office. Over time I could sense impending catnaps and learned to adjust.

    In a car especially during the 90 minutes while going down to the shore at the weekend, he would be writing notes on recent experiments and ideas. When I sensed a catnap, I would stop talking. Remarkably, his HB pencil would stay firmly in place on the page of his quadrille notebook. When I sensed the catnap about to end it was OK to continue where I had left off and his pencil would resume note taking….

    However, once we had gotten to Mantoloking Bridge to cross from the mainland over Barnegat Bay into Mantoloking, Brit switched from nearly all science to nearly all sailing.

    But that’s another story.

  • Jan Chance O'Malley

    D, as most of we children called him, certainly lived an epic life. If he had any regrets it was probably from acts of commission rather than omission.

    His interests were very diverse, primarily science, sailing, ham radio, music and family.

    While a great deal has been written about his extensive and remarkable scientific achievements, very little has been said about his family, which was literally and figuratively a large part of life.

    Most of you already know D won the Olympics in 1952 in the 5.5 meter Complex II. What some of you may not know is that, without exception, all of his children- step children, grandchildren, step grandchildren, ex step grandchildren, great grandchildren and anyone else in any way associated with the Chance family either learned to sail or, at minimum, was co-opted into sailing with him.

    Both on the water and in life in general, D’s greatest contribution to our family and those around him was providing a wide array of opportunities. Often responsibility came hand-in hand with these opportunities, so we learned self-sufficiency and resourcefulness early and sometimes the hard way. Sink or swim comes to mind.

    • In the fall of 1955 there was a 5.5 meter fall series in Annapolis. It was snowing. Peter and I were to stay under the bow during the races (this was before daycare). I mostly remember the thin socks from Woolworths that we purchased to try to keep our feet warm.
    • When I was 6, D pushed me off the MYC main dock to sail a duckboat for the first time (many will remember Me Too). When I finally got back to the dock, I learned what a Bay Head landing was . . . crash! – but I did get back.
    • In the early 60s, D and Lil went to Sweden for the summer, bringing along: Elle, Jan, Ann, Peter and Jerry (Britty, Brookie, Billy, Maggie and Lillie were back in the US). Elle and I got to race in the first Flying Juniors ever built against former KSSS (Royal Swedish Yacht Club) commodores and the Sundelin brothers (who later became Olympic Gold Medalists). We also sailed in the Folkboat Worlds in Helsinki. How many teenage children get to do this?
    • During this same summer, D, Mike Schoettle and Ed O’Malley (who was not yet my husband, or even my boyfriend) sailed in the Baltic Regatta at Tallin, Estonia – the first time foreigners had participated in this regatta since before World War II. This involved sailing across the Baltic Sea from Helsinki, and being greeted and escorted by Russian gunboats as they sailed into Tallin harbor. Elle joined them by train from St. Petersburg and was given an Estonian Finn to race. D won the regatta by a mile and, as was typical, acted as an ambassador by distributing US sailing magazines.

    Being around D always involved a lot of invention and creativity.
    • Some people go to Hawaii on their honeymoon. D and my mother spent their honeymoon (circa 1938) on a freighter to Australia testing an automatic steering device that D had recently invented.
    • In Mantoloking Yacht Club Parent-Child races, when his child did not yet know how to race, he moved a batten inside the cockpit that the child followed with the tiller. He pretty much always won.
    • In the early 1960s off Swan Point in Barnegat Bay, the kids helped D with his ongoing search for speed. Long before anyone else even dreamed of this, he experimented with application of long chain polymers to reduce drag along the bottom of the boat. We were assigned to pushing the syringes on the device he had created to emit the polymers and timed our speed over a measured distance. It worked, and worked so well it was outlawed in the racing rules shortly thereafter.

    As you may know, D (and Uncle Henry) grew up cruising the Atlantic and Caribbean on their father’s various yachts, researching with Dr. Beebe and fishing alongside Ernest Hemingway. We all enjoyed cruising with D, but in much different circumstances. Cruising with D was always an adventure. . . a wet, mosquito bitten, often cold and hungry experience.
    • In the late 1950s, we cruised on an E Scow (not your typical cruising yacht) from Mantoloking to Beach Haven Inlet (6 people aboard, no screens, no cockpit cover, soggy sleeping bags, etc.). At one point, D realized the anchor was dragging. The water was gin clear. Jerry jumped overboard to hold the boat. He was very surprised when it was chest instead of ankle deep.
    • During the summer trip to Sweden in 1961, we sailed across the Baltic from Helsinki to Sandhamn, Sweden overnight, departing during big thunderstorms. Ann and I slept under the bow; Peter and Jerry slept under the stern, with Lil and D standing watch. Both the mast partners and the rudder post leaked so it was a wet night. We were very happy to see the lighthouse on the Swedish coast at dawn. It was windy, wet and cold, but a adventure we have never forgotten.
    • In the mid 80’s Britty arranged a family charter of Nor’Easter, one of the Colonel’s former motor sailors. The plan was to take the extended family, including grandchildren, to Block Island and back from Connecticut. Of course, this being a D cruise, Saturday enfolded with a strong nor’easter. It was typical– windy, wet and nobody was eating because it was so rough. D, an old hand at tolerating Nor’easter’s dreadful roll, placed himself in the exact center of the boat in the engine room hatchway where there was the least amount of rock and roll and where it was warm. At one point it got foggy, and D was able to immediately tune the ancient radar and make it useful.
    • More recently, he cruised the Sharpie in the Florida Keys. He often brought scientific guests, children, grandchildren or, really, any crew he could muster. When we ran aground, everyone (except D) had to jump overboard and push!
    • Starting in the 80s and until his death, D kept a boat in Waretown, NJ on the outfall line of the Oyster Creek Power plant. This kept the water warm and enabled year-round weekend sails. This was one of his favorite spots until the end of his life. Here he enjoyed sailing and cruising Barnegat Bay, his original sailing home.

    I can’t talk about D without mentioning ham radio, which was a part of his life from beginning to end.
    • Dit-dah-dit was a constant in our lives. Every house and boat was equipped to transmit and receive on amateur radio bands. His last morse code transmission occurred only a few weeks before his death. Many of us obtained our novice licenses at about age 12.
    • In his early days, he received weather reports via morse code and had to draw a weather map from those data points.
    • In the late 50s and early 60s, D would listen to the weather report via ham radio in morse code. We would have better forecasts than anyone else sailing in the BBYRA.

    We were always learning through doing.
    • My first radio, at age 10, was a Heathkit crystal set that I built myself, soldering iron and all.
    • When the family wanted a color TV, D bought another Heathkit that we all put together. Of course, EEs at the lab had to debug it to get it to work . . . but the point was that we built it ourselves.

    D’s positive influence on each of us (family and beyond) was broad and profound. He was truly an oracle of knowledge on any subject, and he guided and educated us through childhood to adulthood in an atmosphere where any and all people and ideas were welcome. He gave us the tools and freedom to choose what we wanted to become, on the water and in life. I’m proud to be his daughter.

  • Maggie Chance Schmitt


    When thinking back about my father, I see a complicated, intelligent, serious, intense and somewhat challenging man. Passionate about science, sailing, ham radio, and then somewhere us children figured in. What a background we got: all the sailing and traveling, the lab, the farm, Mantoloking, England, Sweden, and dear old Pine street. A lot of good memories. Being in it was messy and awful at times though other times a thrill. You never really knew what to expect with De. We were taught to jump when he asked us to. He was gone a lot, but we always found time for sailing or working on boats. Ben remembers D saying, “these boats receive a lot of TLC from me and are probably as close to me as any of my children”. I love this quote because I know he loved his kids, but damn did he love his boats.

    Some of the memories I have: Singing around the piano truly was fun. We all did it. Songs of Cole Porter, Rogers & Hammerstein, Gershwin, etc. He was a really good piano player. Lillie remembers him bringing home an accordion on one of my birthdays. He bought it when we were on sabbatical with him in Cambridge, England 1960?

    He would always bring home various collaborators, for dinner, and often they would stay overnight kicking one of us out of our room. Sometimes they were people I enjoyed, like Det Bronk who always brought his pet owl Aristotle. Fascinating to us kids. He’s the man that gave Lillie the electric eel.

    De and Ma would leave us at Mantoloking for the summer with another family to tend us during the week, coming down Friday nights, leaving Monday morning. The Van Rossums, the Lewis’s, and our dear friends the Dutton’s to name a few. We had such good times there, friends, sailing, & swimming in the Atlantic. We often went to Manto in the fall, winter and spring. There was one time a hurricane was coming thru. De was asked to stay because he could operate a ham radio. Winds gusted to 115 mph, the whole third floor was shaking. It was scary and exhilarating.

    Once we were sailing in Sweden with Ma, Lillie, a cousin, and I. All of us were sound asleep in the cabin. De snuck out, hoisted anchor and sail then fell asleep at the helm early in the morning. It was in the land of the midnight sun. A cargo ship passed within a quarter mile, sending Jumping Jack flash to shore and aground. All these Swedes came running out to help, NAKED! I went ashore to help pull down the mast, terrified all the time I might be left there accidentally. We got the boat off the rocks, I swam out and off we went.

    In the 70’s De bought a 2 door red Ford truck with a camper shell – our mode of transport down to the Florida Keys the day after Christmas. 3 or 4 kids and an adult in the back trailing the Mustang from PA to Florida!, a 36 hr trip. Once Sam had to pee into a cup when De wouldn’t stop (he just wanted to get there!) We peeled off layers of clothes as the temperatures got warmer; enduring the deprivations of the trip only to make it to Marathon by sunrise! We sailed the mustang thru Florida Bay with someone at the bow to watch for all the buoys; skirting above reefs/mudflats; watched dolphins jump over the sunset; amazing bird life on islands nearby. Coming into Faro Blanco to have a shower by the pool; ‘Shlimps’ with Family and Paul Mueller after a week or so at ‘sea’. Steve Huff who took all of us tarpon fishing.

    I was walking in the woods last week, thinking of De, sending my love to him, when all of the sudden another memory came to the surface. He would tell us these wonderful scary fantastical stories while Lillie, Ben and I were cozy under the covers in their bedroom at Pine St. (Were they meant to give us nightmares? I don’t think so). De was gone so much that having that special time with him was such a pleasure.

    We spent a lot of time at the lab. De would let us do some stuff there, but mostly we played, ate Tom Redmond’s delicious sandwiches, and probably bothered the staff. Everyone was so kind.

    Such an interesting life he had. I am glad I was part of it, and am proud to be one of his kin.

  • Steve Kron

    I have to thank BC for giving me the opportunity as a Penn college student to work in the Johnson Foundation, spending my hours with the incomparable Jack Leigh and the crew. I have very fond memories of my time in the Johnson Foundation. BC was a heroic character indeed. I tell my lab about BC walking through the JF, occasionally placing a sailor’s firm grip on one of our shoulders, curious to find out about progress. BC is appropriately celebrated for his discoveries, but I would like to salute his extraordinary record of scientific training and the remarkable scientific family that he led. He is responsible for establishing a standard of fearless, interdisciplinary science that many of us will always strive to live up to. His approach is just as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. What a great man of science!

  • Richard Katz

    The last conversation I had with BC, I asked him if mitochondria are nanoscale networked electronic devices. The man didn’t bat an eyelash. “TUNNELING nanoscale networked electronic devices,” he replied. What a genius.

  • BC. His larger then life presence and influence will be missed. I first meet Britt at U of Pa. in the summer of 1983. I was attending the School of Dental Medicine at the time, and needed a summer job to help with living expenses. Britt had advertised a job in the Daily Pennsylvanian for a student interested in work on sail boats. With little experience in this area, I applied for the job, and was hired. To this day, I’m convinced that he took pity on me, because I really knew very little about fiberglass boat repairs. In any event, this small part time job, turned into an experience I shall never forget, and always cherish. The trips to Waretown and Marathon, the sailing experiences in the Keys, learning about so many things, in the company of a truely great man. Because of Britt and his family, I learned to sail and race sail boats all over the US. His influence and teaching, inspired me to try things that I would otherwise have avoided. I will never forget the time that I ran aground in Maraton, Britt after giving me that “look” calmly instructed me to get in the water and break us free. I don’t recall if we used the anchor and winch to do it or if we just dug around the keel, but in any event I learned very quickly to read charts, in the Keys. I will miss BC, and always fonding remember the summers working on Simplex 2,3,4, etc…….RIP Britt. You were a true Renaissance man during a time when few of them existed.

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