Robert Eckles Swain is remembered as an accomplished chemist, educator and community leader. His lifelong interest in the chemistry of air pollution led to two influential monographs and extensive work as a consultant in national and local environmental hearings. A member of the Stanford University Chemistry Department faculty for 41 years, Professor Swain had broad influence across campus as Chemistry Executive Head from 1917 to 1940 and acting university president from 1930 to 1933. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Stanford Research Institute.
Professor Swain was born to a pioneer family in 1875 in Hollister, California, where he enjoyed ranch life and what would become a lifelong enjoyment of fishing and hunting. In 1894 he joined Stanford’s fourth class of undergraduate students after only two years of high school, making up requirements through independent studies. He completed undergraduate work in chemistry at Stanford (AB 1899) before pursuing graduate work at Yale University (MS 1901, PhD 1904). In graduate school he studied biochemistry under Mendel and Chittenden, with interim years doing research at Heidelberg and teaching at Stanford (assistant professor 1902). He returned to Stanford and rapidly rose to associate (1906) and full professor (1911). He served as Department of Chemistry Executive Head from 1917 until his retirement to emeritus status in 1940.