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Dr. Robert L. Wolke

  • On August 30, 2021

Dr. Robert L. Wolke of Pittsburgh, PA died due to complications of Alzhiemer’s on August 29, 2021 at the age of 93. His lifelong curiosity about the world and love of science propelled him to careers as a professor of chemistry, author, and Washington Post columnist.

Bob Wolke was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 2, 1928, the son of Sophia Finkelstein Wolke and Harry Wolke and brother of Arthur Wolke, now 96 years old. After graduating as Salutatorian at Fort Hamilton High School, Bob earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now part of New York University) and his Ph.D. in Nuclear Chemistry at Cornell University.

Bob undertook post-doctoral research on nuclear reactions at the Enrico Fermi Institute of Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago, to which many prominent scientists had returned after working on the Manhattan Project. He recalled this as a historic and stimulating time, joking that he could not turn around without bumping into a Nobel Prizewinner.

After positions at General Atomic Division of General Dynamics, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the University of Florida, he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1960 to join the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh where he served as associate and full professor, founding director of the Wherrett Laboratory of Nuclear Chemistry, chair of the building committee for the Chevron Science Center, and director of the University’s Office of Faculty Development.

He served as academic dean on one of Pitt’s earliest Semester at Sea voyages (Fall, 1982), sailing around the world for 100 days. As dean, he planned the curriculum and recruited faculty from colleges and universities around the U.S.

As consultant to the USAID, the USIA and UNESCO, he carried out international education assignments in Puerto Rico, Venezuela (where he taught graduate-level chemistry in Spanish) and Bangladesh. In 1986 he was a resident fellow in French history and culture at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, where he wrote a scientific analysis of Marie Curie’s doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne.

During his 30-year tenure at Pitt, Bob wrote and performed satirical monologues at administrators’ conferences and wrote wry columns in the University Times, earning the unofficial title of the University’s Comic Laureate. He enjoyed writing song parodies about current events with his longtime friends Ed and Wendy King for their annual Christmas parties.

At the age of 62, Bob left academe to devote full time to writing. He had already written two innovative textbooks: Impact: Science on Society, (1975) and Chemistry Explained, (1980). In 1990, he served as chemistry editor of the Gale Encyclopedia of Science.

In 1998 he was asked to write a biweekly food science column, “Food 101” for The Washington Post. In the syndicated column that ran for 10 years, he answered questions like “what’s special about sea salt?” and “what makes spices spicey?” Bob received The James Beard Foundation award for best newspaper food column in 2001.

The popularity of the column led to the “Einstein series” of trade books:

  • What Einstein Didn’t Know: Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions
  • What Einstein Told His Barber: More Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions
  • What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained
  • What Einstein Kept Under His Hat: Secrets of Science in the Kitchen

For the last two books, he received two nominations from the James Beard Foundation for best technical book (2003 and 2006). In 2005, Bob Wolke received the American Chemical Society’s Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public, a title that summed up his life-long pursuit of making science accessible and engaging.

As a science editor, he contributed to Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking published in 2011.

He met the love of his life, Marlene Parrish and they married in 1991. She was his ally, co-author, editor, and a true partner who enriched his life with travel, music, and many convivial times. His daughter, Leslie Wolke was always his favorite student, prompting many an ad hoc lecture with questions like “why is the sky blue?”

The family requests no flowers. Contributions may be made in his honor to his friend José Andrés’ charity, World Central Kitchen (donate.wck.org).

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Joanne Driscoll
Sad day in this world without Bob Wolke. He was a modest super smart guy with a great gift for humor which he generously shared with others. Sympathy to his family in their loss of a one-of-a-kind talented, accomplished sweet man
MeeLi Lee
Dear Marlene and Leslie, I am so sorry to hear of Bob's passing. He led an exciting and amazing life! I am honored to have had him as my friend. May God's peace be with you as you go through this season of grief. Love, MeeLi
Adrian Visoiu, MD
Bob was always a delight, brightening my day when he would stop by. We will miss him dearly.
Nancy Denhart
The picture you included here depicts Bob so accurately. Always a kind, humorous and respectful professor who was excellent company. My deepest sympathy, Marlene and Leslie, at this time of loss. I know that you cherish happy memories and wonderful adventure stories from life shared with Bob. Thinking of you.
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