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Professor Emeritus János Miklós Beér dies at 95

Chemical engineering professor had a passion for cleaner combustion and was a refugee who helped Raoul Wallenberg rescue Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary.
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Professor Emeritus János Miklós Beér helped Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg rescue Jews in Budapest.
Professor Emeritus János Miklós Beér helped Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg rescue Jews in Budapest.
Photo courtesy of the Department of Chemical Engineering
MIT Professor Emeritus János Miklós Beér (left) is awarded the Hungarian President's Award by the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Szilveszter Vizi, at the March 17, 2008, ceremony at the academy in Budapest, Hungary.
MIT Professor Emeritus János Miklós Beér (left) is awarded the Hungarian President's Award by the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Szilveszter Vizi, at the March 17, 2008, ceremony at the academy in Budapest, Hungary.
Photo courtesy of the Department of Chemical Engineering

János Miklós Beér, professor emeritus of chemical and fuel engineering and a pathbreaking researcher in the field of flames, combustion, and cleaner-burning fossil fuels, died peacefully on Dec. 8, in Winchester at the age of 95.

Beér served on the MIT faculty from 1976 to 1993, helping to launch the Combustion Research Facility as part of the Institute's Energy Laboratory. In 2003, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham awarded him the Homer H. Lowry Award, the department's highest honor, for his work leading to commercial burners that achieved high efficiencies while minimizing noxious emissions such as nitrogen oxides.

“Dr. Beér has made pioneering research and development contributions for 45 years to combustion science and technology of coal, oil, and gaseous flames,” Abraham said at the award ceremony. “He has also been a major influence on industry through his publications and lectures to professionals at national and international meetings, his leadership with students on university campuses, and his service as a consultant to many power and utility companies both in the U.S. and abroad.”

Beér's early years in Central Europe unfolded against a backdrop of the 20th century's most tumultuous and violent episodes. Born on Feb. 27, 1923, in Budapest, Hungary, an only child to Jewish parents, he attended that city's University of Technical and Economic Sciences. But in April 1944, Beér was conscripted into the Hungarian army's labor battalion, and with the fascist Arrow Cross Party ascendant, he found himself in danger of deportation to Germany.

Then fate intervened: A friend of Beér's introduced him to the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who had arrived in Budapest with a plan to rescue Jews. Beér eagerly joined the effort, distributing Swedish passes to Jewish prisoners in railway cattle cars before they could be shipped to concentration camps, and then helping to ferry these people to safety in diplomatically protected houses. In testimony he left to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Beér said: "Wallenberg was very brave, but not reckless … and there was much solidarity in our group."

Beér remained with the Swedish legation until the end of the war, when he was able to reunite with his wife, Marta Gabriella Csato, whom he had married in October 1944. They remained married until her death in 2017. Resuming his education, he received a first class honors degree from József Nádor University of Technology in 1950, and became a research engineer at Budapest's Heat Research Institute, as well as a lecturer at Budapest Technical University.

Beér did not have long to enjoy his newly established professional life, however. When Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956 to put down the popular uprising against the Communist regime, he and his wife fled from the mass arrests. They landed as refugees in Scotland, where Beér found employment with Babcock and Wilcox Ltd. In 1957, the couple moved to England, and soon Beér was completing his doctorate at the University of Sheffield. After receiving his PhD in 1960, Beér took a position with the International Flame Research Foundation (IFRF) in Ijmuiden, the Netherlands.

As head of station at the IFRF, a global research hub for the industrial combustion community, "János performed with distinction," noted Philip Sharman, current IFRF director. He led a team of investigators "in a great deal of pioneering research on the aerodynamics and mixing in isothermal jet flames. … "

In 1963, Beér left to become a professor of fuel science at Penn State University. He then returned to the University of Sheffield, where he served on the faculty and later as head of the school's department of chemical engineering and fuel technology. He was awarded a doctorate of science there in 1968, and also served as dean of engineering from 1973 to 1976, when he was recruited to MIT as professor of chemical and fuel engineering.

Throughout his career, Beér focused on improving electric power generation from fossil fuels, hoping to gain efficiency, lower costs, and reduce emissions. Even after his retirement from MIT, he pursued these goals, publishing in journals well into his 80s. During his career, Beér authored more than 300 articles, co-authored "Combustion Aerodynamics" (Applied Science Publishers, 1972), a foundational textbook of the era that characterized flow patterns in flames and furnaces.

Amongst his numerous honors, Beér received the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic for his support of Hungarian higher education and research. In 2012, Beér received the Worcester Reed Warner Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for his achievements, including such firsts as using water model studies as an analogy for describing combustion systems; detailing scaling laws for use in combustors and furnaces; studying single droplet combustion; and developing processes for reducing NOx emissions from a range of combustion sources.

"Beér was a giant in his field of combustion," said Gregory Stephanopoulos, the Willard Henry Dow Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. But he was not just an accomplished researcher. Colleagues recall a friend distinguished by a certain old-world charm.

Paula Hammond, the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering and head of the MIT chemical engineering department, recalls: “I knew János personally as he was my next door office suitemate when I started as a faculty member. He was the ultimate gentleman, warm, kind and ever thoughtful — asking me about my work and offering his support for me as a new junior faculty member.

“Although Janos will always be known for his many outstanding achievements in establishing and expanding the area of combustion engineering, his lasting contributions are his many past students, who were inspired and influenced by his mentorship,” Hammond says.

Yiannis A. Levendis, distinguished professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern University remembers Beér's arrival for a PhD student's thesis defense, when Beér carefully fastened a pin on his ascot. "The occasion of such an important event in a student's life called for respectful formality," Beér told Levendis.

Adds Stephanopoulos: "As a true Hungarian, he appreciated good coffee and had mastered the full art of brewing temperature, duration, and amount of coffee to get a perfect cup."

"At the age of 95, I have known a lot of professors," says Edward W. Merrill, the C.P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering, emeritus. "János was a delightful, warm person — a great gentleman as well as teacher."

Details for a memorial service will be shared as soon as they become available.

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