After 40 years at Rohm & Haas, chemist Ellington Beavers was forced into mandatory retirement at age 65.
But he was far from ready to set aside his test tubes and flasks.
So he wrote to several local universities, including Arcadia, then known as Beaver College, offering his services for free if he could work in their labs.
Arcadia’s president at the time sealed the deal over lunch at the Union League, and now — nearly 40 years later and four years after Beavers’ death just three days shy of his 99th birthday — that fateful decision really paid off.
For more than two decades after his 1981 retirement, Beavers conducted research at Arcadia’s Boyer Hall. His work led to 11 patents related to the use of hyaluronic acid — a natural lubricant found in body tissue — which makes medical devices more slippery and easier to insert. In 1991, he founded Biocoat, a global medical device coating company, which he ran out of the college until 2006 when it grew too big and had to be relocated to facilities in Horsham.
Grateful to the Glenside university that gave his work a home, Beavers provided that a percentage of proceeds from the eventual sale of the company should go to the university.
In December, the company was sold to 1315 Capital, and Arcadia got its check for $8.6 million — the largest single gift in the university’s history.
“This onetime gift stands to make a monumental impact for Arcadia University, its students, its faculty, and its community members locally and around the world,” said Arcadia president Ajay Nair.
Arcadia has decided to invest it in a quasi endowment aimed at supporting “strategic initiatives” at the school. It’s a major shot in the arm to a university that, like many other colleges, has struggled in recent years with budget needs and just a year ago contemplated but decided against laying off faculty.
And it all came about because a local college decided to give a successful retiree a chance at a career rebirth.
Born in Atlanta, Beavers, a marathon runner, avid golfer, and signature Southern gentleman, knew what it was like to struggle. He lost his father when he was in his teens and his mother was left to raise him and his three siblings, said Peg Beavers, 51, his daughter-in-law, who also is executive vice president at Biocoat.
Beavers ran away from home at one point, hoping to save his mother some money by giving her one less mouth to feed, she said. He and a friend hopped a cargo train to Chicago, and to escape detection, clung to an outside ladder, she said. He had only a satchel of apples and a dime to his name. He dropped the apples. But he held on tightly to that dime.
“He never forgot the value of one dime,” his daughter-in-law said.
Beavers attended Emory University, and got his doctorate at the University of North Carolina. He held various positions at Rohm & Haas, several at the vice president’s level, the last one reporting directly to the CEO.
In an 80-plus-page memoir, Beavers recounted his days at Rohm & Haas, including the not-so-pleasant ones when the company faced dozens of claims of employee cancer deaths due to chemical exposure at its Bridesburg plant. He became the company’s spokesperson on the problem and took the brunt of the criticism. Rohm & Haas eventually paid more than $24 million to settle the claims. (The company has since been absorbed into DowDuPont.)
When he reached out to Beaver College upon retirement, he was named to the board of trustees and served as its chairman from 1984 to 1989.
He also began renting space at Boyer Hall to begin his next work life. While there, 60-some students, as well as Arcadia professors, worked with Beavers in his lab, based in room 327, with a so-called clean room down the hall for safe disposal of chemicals. Over time, the operation expanded, with the installation of a wooden curing oven, an exposure rack on the roof of Boyer to test the impact of the elements on the coating, and a system of pulleys and fishing lines to expedite the coating process.
“His aim was doing exploratory investigations that might prove to form particularly valuable technologies and ultimately might someday become profitable,” said Chester Mark Mikulski, an Arcadia professor of chemistry and physics and longtime colleague and friend of Beavers'.
“To me, he was an executive. He was an entrepreneur. He was a daring thinker whose lifelong love was applied research.”
Beavers shared profits with the college. Early on, he tested applications for optical lenses, automobile windshields, condoms, non-fogging bathroom mirrors, surgical blades, submarines, torpedoes, stents, bandages, and fire hoses.
Biocoat today licenses hydrophilic coatings for intravenous devices used in medical areas such as ophthalmology, cardiology, and neurovascular surgery. Its primary component, hyaluronic acid, is “the secret ingredient that makes everything slippery,” explained Peg Beavers. The coating is applied to the instrument used to insert a new lens in the eye after cataract surgery. It helps doctors remove clots, which is key to the recovery of stroke victims, and is used in in vitro fertilization procedures.
Even after Beavers retired in 2003, he continued for several years to come in at lunchtime, often carrying a manila folder with research ideas, she said.
“He truly, truly was still researching and trying to solve problems to the end of his life,” she said.
Even in his final years, he walked a mile every day and visited Biocoat monthly to take part in a practice he started: Every employee with a birthday that month has to stand and tell a story, she said.
He and his wife, Lorraine, traveled the world until his death in 2015.
“But I think he would have much rather been back in a lab,” his daughter-in-law said.
Arcadia retains Beavers’ entrepreneurial spirit through the Ellington Beavers Fund for Intellectual Inquiry, which makes awards annually to budding researchers among faculty and students.
Students such as Jacqueline Neminski, 23, who will soon receive her master’s in genetic counseling. Her research, supported with the $500 award, is focused on how educational resources and media impact patient understanding of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.