Amherst College mourns the passing of  Allen Kropf, the Julian H. Gibbs 1946 Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, on March 7, 2024.

Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein wrote the following in a March 8 email to faculty and staff:

Allen joined Amherst’s chemistry department in 1958 as an instructor, was tenured in 1963, and became a full professor in 1968.  By the time of his retirement in 2000, he had taught at the college for forty-two years.

Allen earned a B.S. in chemistry from Queens College and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.  During his distinguished career, he held visiting appointments as an instructor at Woods Hole’s Marine Biological Laboratories; NSF Science Faculty Fellow at Berkeley; NIH Special Fellow at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel; visiting professor in the Department of Biophysics at Kyoto University; visiting professor in the Department of Physical Chemistry at Hebrew University; and visiting scholar in biology at Harvard, among others.

An accomplished and admired teacher, Allen developed many of the courses taught in the chemistry curriculum during his time at the college; designed and taught a number of interdisciplinary science courses for non-science majors; and also proposed, developed, and initiated the biophysics program at Amherst in 1964, chairing the program for many years.  That program evolved into the neuroscience program, the first such program at a liberal arts college to be established and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.  Allen’s renowned series of courses for non-science majors on the topic of light and vision evolved from his research interest in the chemistry of vision.

On the occasion of Allen's last class in 1999, which was "Chemical Principles," Pat O'Hara, now the Amanda and Lisa Cross Professor of Chemistry, noted that "Allen was the architect of this class on thermodynamics and kinetics, departing from all textbooks and formulaic ways to teach thermodynamics.  In his hands, concepts of energy, disorder, and heat took on almost metaphysical meaning, and reflected a world view, not just a way of predicting chemical reactivity. He has taught all of us in the department to think critically and deeply about order and chaos.  It remains one of the most important courses that future science majors at the college take." Chemistry 161, the current day manifestation of this core chemistry course, still bears hallmarks of Allen's vision.

Allen began studying visual pigments as a postdoctoral fellow.  He collaborated with Ruth Hubbard, the first female tenured professor in the history of Harvard’s Department of Biology, to understand vision at a fundamental biochemical level. Their 1958 paper, titled “The Action of Light on Rhodospin,” represented a breakthrough and led others (including Ruth Hubbard's husband, George Wald) to Nobel Prizes in 1967.  Allen was a champion of women scientists at a time when this was unusual.  In addition to engaging in a partnership with Ruth Hubbard, he encouraged his wife, Rita Kropf, to pursue an advanced degree later in life.  The two later engaged in research together.  During his years at Amherst, Allen pursued research in the photochemistry of the visual process and helped initiate the study of artificial visual pigments by synthesizing and characterizing some of the first vitamin A analogues used in combination with visual proteins.

Professor David Hansen offered the following reflection: “I arrived at Amherst in 1986, and my senior colleague Allen quickly became an influential and beloved mentor.  In my very first semester at the college, I had the honor of attending all of his lectures in introductory chemistry, during which I saw for the first time what it truly means to teach chemistry as a liberal art.  When I was named the Julian H. Gibbs 1946 Professor of Chemistry in 2018, I was particularly touched, as Allen was the inaugural holder of this chair.  His legacy in the department holds strong.”  

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