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Burnet, George

Published onMar 12, 2021
Burnet, George

George Burnet, 2017

Commissioned by University Museums and the College of Engineering. U2017.114

GEORGE BURNET (BS ’48, MS ’49, PhD ’51 chemical engineering) is Anson Marston Distinguished Professor Emeritus and retired chair of Iowa State’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

As Burnet puts it, he had no choice but to become an engineer.

“I am George Burnet V and all prior George Burnets were engineers, so the die was pretty well cast for me,” he said. “I believed the DuPont Company when it said ‘A Better Life Through Chemistry’ and, after growing up in Fort Dodge, I came to Iowa State in 1942 to study chemical engineering.”

He put his studies aside and volunteered for the Army in 1944, serving as a commissioned field artillery officer in the South Pacific. While home on military leave, he married Betty Arlene Riggs from Wesley, Iowa. He returned to Iowa State to finish his bachelor’s degree in 1948 and, “immensely grateful for the GI Bill,” earned his master’s and doctorate degrees over the next three years.

A mentor who greatly influenced his career was O.R. Sweeny, the first head of ISU’s Department of Chemical Engineering and the one after whom Sweeny Hall is named. “His lectures convinced students that chemical engineers could do anything,” Burnet said. “He exemplified the adage that throughout life one will reap what he sows.”

After working in industry, he came back to his alma mater in 1956 as an associate professor. He also became department head in 1961, a post he held until 1978. For many years, he served as chief of Ames Laboratory’s chemical engineering division and was an interim dean of the College of Engineering.

He served as national president of both the American Society for Engineering Education and the Omega Chi Epsilon honor society. He served on committees and panels of the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and other organizations. He is a founding member of the Iowa section of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and was active with the American Chemical Society, Iowa Academy of Science, and National Society of Professional Engineers.

In 1975, he was named Anson Marston Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Iowa State and attained Professor Emeritus status with the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in 1995. He played a key role in the department’s Centennial Celebration in 2013, and co-authored a book, The First 100 Years of Chemical Engineering at Iowa State University.

Community service led to his being named an Ames “Unsung Hero” awardee in 2003.

Dean of the College of Engineering, Sarah Rajala: Dr. Burnet exemplifies a true leader who served his country, enjoyed a career in industry, provided leadership to his professional societies, and to his alma mater making a significant impact as a faculty member and serving in several administrative positions.

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