January 2011

Retrospective: Britton Chance (1913 – 2010)

Molecular biologist Britton Chance, whose multifaceted research advanced the understanding of biology, instrumentation and medicine, passed away on Nov. 16. He was 97.

Image courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Archives.

Britton Chance was born in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., in 1913. He spent many summers during his youth sailing, and his love of the sea was the catalyst for his first significant contribution to science and technology. When he was just a teenager, Chance invented an autosteering device that detected deviations in a ship’s course and generated a feedback signal to redirect the ship’s steering mechanisms. Later in life, his love of sailing and intense competitive spirit landed him a spot on the U.S. yacht Olympic team, where he won a gold medal in the 1952 Olympics.

Chance received his bachelor’s degree (1935) and his doctorate in physical chemistry (1941) from the University of Pennsylvania and his doctorate in physiology from Cambridge University (1943).

In 1938, while still a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Chance started constructing a microflow apparatus. He completed the instrument by 1939 and did some initial studies on luciferase-O2 reactions. Several years later, using a new version of his rapid-flow instrument, he elucidated the peroxidase enzyme-substrate reactions, providing the first direct evidence of the correctness of the Michaelis-Menten theory.

During World War II, Chance was recruited to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radiation Laboratory to work on radar systems. His first project was developing radar for blimps searching for submarines off the U.S. coast. Later, he worked on radar-guided bombs.

After World War II, Chance went to Stockholm on a two-year Guggenheim Fellowship to work with Hugo Theorell. He and Theorell used another version of the stop-flow apparatus to study the kinetics of NAD in alcohol-aldehyde interconversion and found that product release was rate-determining. This is now called the Theorell-Chance mechanism.

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Quite simply, I owe my scientific career to my two years in the JF with Brit. It was a unique privilege to be associated with such a generous mentor. That the Chance and Williams papers on mitochondrial respiration are still being cited 55 years later is a source of deep satisfaction. And his intellectual influence will be felt by successive generations of students. Ron Williams, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biochemistry, University of Toronto


I thank you all who wrote of your time spent with my father. It showed me sides of him I never knew. I am so glad to know him better through all of you. Maggie Chance Schmitt


This is the most wonderful article - such great memories of such a great man. As one of his (many) sons, I marvel at his scientific gifts and his way of reaching out to people, helping them, guiding them. He did so for me for many decades, and that guidance is missed. Keep his memory alive with these fantastic memories is so important and meaningful. Thank you to all the contributors! Sincerely, Ben Chance PS - I have photos from Rome on my wall and never knew who was in it, thank you :) It is a beautiful series!


Being the pedant that Brit never was, I take some exception to the subheading of Azzi and Kresge's very nice article, provided no doubt by an editor, that describes him as a "molecular biologist." Although it may fit with the purview of the Society's moniker, it does a disservice to this truly great scientist and man. Brit's research ranged so far and wide that it is remarkable that there is a one word description of his field(s) - it is clearly "biophysics." Britton Chance was one of a handful of biophysicists, all Renaissance men, who brought biology into the quantitative era of the late 20th Century. Furthermore, behind his sometimes intimidating intellect was a sympathetic and very supportive person who actively promoted the careers of countless young researchers. Brit was an exceptional role model for anyone, not just today's scientists. Colin Wraight Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Plant Biology University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Angelo Azzi is to be congratulated for having put together this marvelous and inspiring retrospective on Britton Chance Lester Packer University of Pennsylvania Johnson foundation posrtdoctoral 1955, 1957-1959



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