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P.L. Thibaut Brian, professor emeritus of chemical engineering, dies at 87

Longtime professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering was a champion of engineering and safety excellence throughout his career.
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Pierre Leonc "PL" Thibaut Brian
Pierre Leonc "PL" Thibaut Brian
Photo courtesy of the MIT Museum.

Pierre Leonc Thibaut Brian, professor emeritus in the Department of Chemical Engineering, died on April 2 at age 87.

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on July 8, 1930, Brian received a BS in chemical engineering from Louisiana State University in 1951. He earned his ScD in chemical engineering from MIT in 1956, supervised by Professor Edwin R. Gilliland. Upon graduation, he immediately joined the faculty of the Department of Chemical Engineering as director of the Bangor Station of the Chemical Engineering Practice School. As a professor, Brian’s research focused largely on mass and heat transfer with simultaneous chemical reaction. He was an early adopter of computers in chemical engineering and contributed to the associated opportunities in process control and numerical analysis.

“Thibaut was well known for many qualities but two may head the list: high energy and quickness of insight. He projected enormous energy and worked extremely hard — and this made him a captivating teacher,” says Ken Smith, the Gilliland Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering. “When Thibaut was presented with a complex, ill-defined problem, he would almost instantly understand what the essential elements really were and how one should go about attacking it.”

In 1972, Brian retired from MIT and joined Air Projects as vice president of engineering, where he remained until 1994. Brian’s early contributions at Air Products were mainly of a technical sort, largely in the context of air separation. Later, he became a very effective advocate for enhanced safety in the chemical process industry and particularly for sophisticated quantitative hazard analyses as a means of assessing risks. As a result of his efforts, Air Products’ safety record became one of the best in the industry and other companies emulated their procedures.

Brian was an active member and director of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; he received its Professional Progress in Chemical Engineering Award in 1973 and its R.L. Jacks Award (now re-named the Management Award) in 1989. Churchill College of Cambridge in the United Kingdom elected him to the position of Overseas Fellow, and hosted him for a sabbatical year. Brian was a member of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology and the American Industrial Health Council. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1975 for his “contributions to both theory and engineering practice of desalination, mass transfer in chemically reactive systems, and the technology of liquefied gases.” Brian was elected to foreign membership in the Royal Academy of Engineering (UK) in 1991. In 1972, he authored the book, “Staged Cascades in Chemical Processing.”

Predeceased in 2016 by his wife of 64 years, Geraldine 'Gerry,' he is survived by his son Richard and daughter-in-law Susan; his son James and daughter-in-law Sheryl; his daughter, Evelyn 'Evie'; his grandchildren, Richard Christopher Brian and Lauren Brian Spears; and by his great grandson, Olin Thomas Spears. Condolences may be made to

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