Professor recalled as brilliant, practical

Friends of Paul W. Gilles, a native Kansan who became an internationally renowned scientist, will remember not only his scientific talents but also his practical skills and intelligence.

Gilles died Thursday at age 83.

The retired Kansas University professor, who specialized in high-temperature chemistry, was one of the first four distinguished professors at KU, where his career spanned more than 50 years.

He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry from KU in 1943. From there, he moved to the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned a doctorate in 1947.

While at Berkeley, Gilles worked on the Manhattan Project, which contributed to producing the atomic bomb. His part of the project was to make containers for holding molten plutonium, as he explained in a 1995 interview with the Journal-World.

Gilles said in the interview that he had been excited about the project’s research benefits.

“Almost immediately in Berkeley, as well as in Chicago, scientists began to work for peaceful uses of atomic energy, as in medicine, electricity generation, process monitoring and environmental surveillance,” he said.

But while Gilles’ research might benefit the world, it did him harm. His wife, Helen Gilles, said her husband worked with beryllium on the project, which gave him berylliosis. The exposure caused lung damage, which led to his death.

Gilles returned to KU after the project, where he continued work in high-temperature chemistry. One of Gilles’ colleagues in the chemistry department, Richard Schowen, said Gilles examined how chemicals reacted to very high temperatures, which had applications in space travel as well as manufacturing.

Schowen said Gilles was one of the top scientists in this branch of chemistry and worked hard to pass his knowledge to graduate students.

“His was a tremendously rigorous education program,” he said. “He had a clear idea of what it took to be a high-temperature chemist.”

Schowen said Gilles expected his students to be adept at math and physics and conducting difficult experiments. He said Gilles’ students often took up to two years longer to complete their degrees, but they came out the best in their fields and held high posts in academia and manufacturing.

Gilles also used his abilities to help his community.

“Paul was a person who was not only effective at the most difficult and abstract mathematics, but he had a great practical bend,” Schowen said. “He could repair and fix things.”

Schowen said Gilles often helped repair the building of the Lawrence Unitarian Fellowship, where he was an active member.

Another retired KU professor, Calder Pickett, got to know Gilles through the fellowship and said his logical mind made him an excellent problem-solver for the organization.

“He was one of the most intelligent men I have ever known,” Pickett said.