Brian Dickens

Brian Dickens Memorial,   1937 - 2012

The song has ended,
but the melody lingers on . . .

Dr. Brian Dickens, for over 30 years a physical chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), died on August 21, 2012 from a brain tumor.

Brian Dickens was born in England. At age 11 he went on a scholarship to Bolton School (UK), where he learned enough chemistry to begin his career at age 17 as an analytical chemist in a lead-acid battery factory and enough physics to design printed circuit boards at the end of his career. Because he had left the school to take a job, he continued his education at night school and later advanced to the level of Associate of the Royal Institute of Chemistry (ARIC).

In the ARIC exam he received the best grade in the country for the past 10 years. As British Universities at that time would not accept the ARIC qualification for entry into graduate school. Dr. Dickens came to the US to get his PhD in X-Ray crystallography. The battery company, for which he worked, paid his fare, gave him $200/year as a stipend, provided he would work for them for 2 years after his return, and sent him to America on a cargo boat. It was then that Dr. Dickens met his first computer. The computer played a major part in his life and was especially attractive to him as it quickly replaced pen, paper and logarithms.

He completed his PhD in a little over 3 years at age 25 and after a post-doctoral position at Harvard, went back to the UK to resume duties with the battery company. In 1962 he returned to the US to work as a crystallographer at the Naval Propellant Plant at Indian Head in Southern Maryland. A couple of years later, Dr. Dickens moved to the Dental Research Section in the Polymers Division of NBS (National Bureau of Standards, now NIST) where he directed the work of the crystallography team studying compounds for tooth and bone formation. For this work he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Commerce Dept. Later he became a polymer chemist in the NBS Polymers Division.

In 1978 he was sent to France as a United Nations Senior Scientist for a year's training in polymer oxidation at the Center of Research on Macromolecules in Strasbourg, France. Before going to France, Dr. Dickens polished up his high school French by establishing the NIST French group, in existence for over 30 years, where he had weekly lunch with French guest-scientists. He ran a similar club to speak German with German visitors. Many of these remained his friends for decades. One of the German guest-scientists became his wife. On his return from France to NBS he designed and automated laboratory apparatus, studied thermal degradation and photo-oxidation of polymers, water absorption in polymers, and dipole alignments in ferroelectric films. He wrote computer programs to automate gel permeation chromatography experiments, and many other measurement techniques, always with the view of making the computer do the heavy lifting in any calculations. He synthesized inks for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for use in printing US dollars and postage stamps and wrote spread-sheets to aid in choosing the proportions in the recipe for synthesizing the resins without the resins gelling prematurely.

At the age of 41 Dr. Dickens decided to build a house, for which he drew blueprints, surveyed the lot, cut all the trees on the wooded lot, and before construction, carried many cinder blocks into the hole for the new basement. After he retired, Dr. Dickens became a consultant to several local firms, to the American Dental Association, and the Building and Fire Research Laboratory at NIST. He contributed to the design and programmed apparatus to measure contraction and stresses generated in dental filling materials, wrote a commercial system of programs for preparatory chromatography and for over 10 years, was the mainstay in designing printed circuit boards for the Service Life Prediction program of BFRL, programmed microcontrollers, and wrote all the computer programs to collect and process the data. This culminated in a computer program that for the first time achieved the long sought goal of successfully predicting from laboratory measurements the external weathering of thin plastic films exposed on the NIST roof.

Dr. Dickens is survived by his second wife of 30 years, Sabine, his first wife Andrea Thomson-Smith, his son Ian Dickens, his daughter Jennifer Martin, his step son Matthias Venz and 4 grandchildren. He was always ready with a quick quip, pun, or witty remark and some story he found funny, of which he had an apparently endless supply. To him humor was to be used as a sign of affection, or a salve if so needed. Although diagnosed with a very unfavorable prognosis he remained resolutely cheerful and active until the end. His watchword was Shakespeare's "cowards die many times before their deaths". Although towards the end he lost speech comprehension and with it recognition of played music, he could and did talk fluently up to the end of his life. At the very end his main interactive sense was his sight, which he used to read music, subtitles, and notes passed to him when he could not recognize what had just been said. Dr. Dickens had a full and interesting life, with a lifelong love for music. He played trumpet, clarinet, tenor saxophone and double bass and the soprano saxophone up to a few weeks before his death. He very much enjoyed reading and speaking foreign languages (he was fluent in French and German), and loved trips to France and Germany. He received and was grateful for home schooling in German from his second wife, who gave him wonderful care in his failing days and months.

Brian Dickens was a very special person, who touched many lives. He will not be forgotten as he lives on in the memories of his family and friends.

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