Car buffs may not know the name Ying Kao Lee, but it was he who kept many of their cars shiny.
During 35 years with the DuPont Co., Dr. Lee invented Lucite dispersion lacquer, the substance in car paint that prevents fading. By doing so, he reduced emissions in the painting process by 70% and set the pattern for automotive top-coat finishing for two decades, ending in the 1990s.
“DuPont had a very big business in car-paint science at its Marshall Laboratory in South Philadelphia,” said his son-in-law Jason Duckworth. “He was able to create the technology for cars to look good years later.”
Dr. Lee, 87, of the Quadrangle in Haverford and formerly of Cherry Hill, died Monday, April 13, at Bryn Mawr Hospital of COVID-19, the family said.
Born in Shanghai, China, Dr. Lee came from a high-profile family. His father was D.T. Lee, a textile magnate. As a teenager, Dr. Lee studied English in Hong Kong and then, as he would later tell his grandchildren, left for England.
Planning to return to China, Dr. Lee, called “Y.K.,” earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Leeds in 1957. During this period, he was a self-described “mediocre student, respectable dancer, and outstanding ping-pong player,” his family said in a statement.
But tensions were growing between China and Taiwan, where most of the Lee family had moved. His father directed by telegram that Dr. Lee not return to China because the communist rulers were seizing the family’s businesses.
“Y.K. should by now be ready to stand on his own two feet and would therefore no longer be receiving financial support,” his father said. Overnight, Mr. Lee went from being the carefree son of a wealthy silk merchant to being alone and jobless on the other side of the globe.
He immigrated in his 20s to the United States and became a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati. In 1961, after three years, he earned a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry.
That April, Mr. Lee met Theresa Tai, a young artist who also had immigrated from China to the United States. They married in September 1961.
In 1965, Dr. Lee joined DuPont. In addition to the car-coating invention, he was a pioneer in creating coatings for microelectronics and was effective in forging business ties for DuPont with China.
Before retiring from DuPont in 2000, he was named a Distinguished Scientist, the highest nonmanagement rank in the company, and was awarded the firm’s Lavoisier Medal for achievement in technology.
In 1994, Dr. Lee was awarded an honorary professorship by the Institute of Chemistry in Beijing for connecting American and Chinese researchers in macromolecular science.
That year, he received the Achievement Award from the Chinese Institute of Engineers, U.S.A.
His family remembered his dinnertime lectures on what to do about the American economy. He loved to quote business leaders Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch.
“He was an honest man, both when returning lost wallets to their proper owners and bluntly sharing his opinion about what you’d gotten him for Christmas,” his family said in a statement.
Besides his wife, he is survived by children Arthur, Annette, and Angela Duckworth, and nine grandchildren.