The Remembrance Project: Leonard Nash

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Leonard Nash died November 9, 2013, in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was 94 years old, and a professor emeritus of chemistry at Harvard. He taught inorganic chemistry to anxious premedical students, as well as to devout chemistry majors — and once, before a fascinated and horrified freshman class, swallowed what appeared to be a beaker full of fresh blood in order to make a scientific point. When students called him at home, his wife would hand him the phone only if the caller asked to speak to someone named Swordfish. This signified a member of his inner educational circle.

Swordfish was a highly deliberate and reasoned man. He helped define the field of thermodynamics and inspired the inventor of the paradigm shift, who had been a student of his. With a cracking voice, in a black turtleneck and suspenders, he strode across the floor of his amphitheater. Although he was tenured, he most enjoyed teaching entry-level classes, and hosted long office hours to help those suffering with problem sets, because he wanted his students to like acids and bases. He helped them in other ways, too, including luncheons at Chinese restaurants and, on at least one occasion, offering to fund the fallen slate roof of a former student’s new home. As a result, his extended student family was large and devoted.

Professor Nash was married for more than half a century to his wife, who, as you can imagine, was a calm and humorous woman. Though he was not inclined to self-pity, when she developed dementia he remarked that the only other person who knew his memories had now lost them, and it was not meaningful to remember alone. For a man who loved European travel, portaging canoes in remote Maine, fine red wines for lunch (until he lost his sense of smell in his eighties), Zipcars and Restaurant Week, Chinese food and balancing equations about pressure and volume, this was one of the rare expressions of his sadness.

Did you know Leonard Nash? Share your memories in the comments section.

This segment aired on June 3, 2014.


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