22 Feb 2024

In Memoriam: Ronald Hites

Elin Ulrich and Susan Glassmeyer, US Environmental Protection Agency

On 5 January, the environmental science world lost a giant as Ronald Atlee Hites passed away at his home in Bloomington, Indiana. Ron was born in 1942 in Michigan. He received his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Oakland University in 1964 and his PhD in analytical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1968 with mass spectrometry pioneer Klaus Biemann. He completed a National Academy of Sciences postdoc with the Deptartment of Agriculture in Peoria, Illinois, and then returned to MIT, until accepting a position in 1979 at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he held dual appointments in the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the Department of Chemistry.

Ron's influence on environmental chemistry is ubiquitous, like many of the chemicals he discovered and measured in the environment. A few notable scientific contributions include coupling mass spectrometers to computers; in-depth monitoring and trend analysis of contaminants in the Great Lakes through the Integrated Atmospheric Deposition Network, text and reference books; and contributions to the Mars Viking lander. Ron received many awards and honors throughout his career, most notably he received the Award for Creative Advances in Environmental Science (1993); was named Charter Fellow (2009) by the American Chemical Society (ACS); received the Founders Award (1993) and named Charter Fellow (2013) by SETAC; named an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow (1996); and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association for Great Lakes Research (IAGLR; 2016). Ron’s professional memberships included ACS, AAAS, IAGLR, SETAC, the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), where he founded their journal during his time as president. Ron contributed to SETAC by serving on the Board of Directors (1997–2000), chairing the Awards and Fellowships Committee (1998–2000), and volunteering on the Nominating Committee (2003).

Ron was well known for his sense of humor, which was evident in his publications, presentations and personal interactions. A classic is the “Advent of Fire Story.” When confronted with a theory that dioxins were present in the atmosphere since fire was discovered, Ron concluded that fire began in the mid-1940s, when sediment cores showed a marked increase in concentration. He asked to “buy a vowel” in a meeting replete with unintelligible acronyms. His students would never shorthand "mass spectrometry" to “mass spec,” since he would insist that it’s too important an instrument or technique to be referred to as a speck. He mailed pieces of his shirt (see photo) to the attendees of the Hites Lab reunion (aka "not a retirement" party) in 2014, after we noted he was wearing the shirt in most photos we had.

In typical Ron fashion, we leave it as an “exercise to the student” to dig a little deeper into the man, the scientist, the legend. Suggested reading includes “The Journey of Ronald A. Hites,” “Ronald A. Hites: Chemical Comedian,” other submissions from the 2015 Ron Hites Tribute issue in ES&T, his article “Reminiscences of a simple country chemist,” and the legacy of science he has left behind through his mentorship of postdocs, PhD and masters students ( n >120).

Author's contact: [email protected]