Remembering MatSE's first department head James Economy


Emily Jankauski

James Economy
James Economy

URBANA — James Economy, 92, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Department of Materials Science and Engineering professor emeritus, died on Oct. 26.

U of I contributions

For nearly 25 years, Economy inspired generations of U of I materials science and engineers with his teaching and leadership. In 1989, he took the helm as MatSE’s first department head, leading faculty and staff following a merger of the Ceramic Engineering and the Metallurgical and Mining Engineering departments.

“One of the first things I had to do as department head was to get a curriculum put together that would integrate the four areas of concentration — metals, ceramics, polymers (and) electronic materials,” said Economy in an April 29, 2019, article published on MatSE’s website highlighting a professorship established in his namesake.

Here Economy developed and taught curriculum on materials and polymer synthesis for undergraduate and graduate students, respectively.

Under his leadership, MatSE became one of the top three materials science and engineering programs in the nation. The increased rank is thanks to Economy’s efforts.

His most notable?

Overseeing the renovation of the Ceramics Kiln House, which provided state-of-the-art undergraduate labs. He also increased MatSE’s undergraduate enrollment by offering incoming freshmen scholarships and recruiting top-notch students.

James Economy is surrounded by former students and their children during his 90th birthday celebration in April 2019.
James Economy is surrounded by former students and their children during his 90th birthday celebration in April 2019.

In 2000, after a decade of service, Economy stepped away from his leadership role, but he continued doing what he loved —  teaching and researching about polymers — until he officially retired in 2001.

In 2019, during his 90th birthday celebration, the James Economy Professorship was established to support MatSE in the recruitment of established researchers dedicated to the development of new materials for societal purposes. Professor Charles Schroeder was selected as the first James Economy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering earlier in August.

“The breadth of Jim’s contributions to materials science are vast and deep,” said Nancy Sottos, current MatSE department head. “As the first head of Materials Science and Engineering at Illinois, Jim was instrumental in leading the newly merged department on a path to excellence. He hired many talented faculty who have gone on to shape the department as well as the field.”

“(He) started our top-ranked undergraduate program in materials science, fostered new areas of research as well as inspir(ed) the entrepreneurial translation of this basic materials research to the public sector,” she added.

Lifetime achievements

Economy caught the attention of U of I faculty for his polymer research at IBM from '75 to '89. Here he served as the manager of the Polymer Science and Technology Department at IBM Research and went on to become the director of polymer research at the Almaden, an IBM Research laboratory in San Jose, California.

Prior to this, Economy worked at Carborundum Company, now owned by Saint Gobain, which develops and distributes high-performance materials. During his tenure, serving from 1960 to '75, Economy and his group developed more than 20 new materials that showed commercial potential. Four of those materials are still available today.

James Economy and Nancy Sottos, current MatSE department head, couldn’t help but grin during the founding department head’s 90th birthday celebration in April 2019.
James Economy and Nancy Sottos, current MatSE department head, couldn’t help but grin during the founding department head’s 90th birthday celebration in April 2019.

His research at Carborundum was selected 14 times for an I-R (Industrial Research) 100s award, which is now known as the R&D (Research and Development) 100 Awards, named after R&D World magazine. Award winners are recognized for their innovative products and technologies that revolutionize the industry.

After retiring from the U of I, Economy was a co-principal investigator for the National Science Foundation’s Technology Center for Advanced Materials for Water Purification, where he developed revolutionary materials and systems to purify water both “safely” and “economically,” said Economy in an April 29, 2019, article. His efforts yielded $4 million per year for the next 10 years.

Economy also helped found two companies, ATSP (Aromatic Thermosetting coPolyesters) Innovations and Serionix —  both born out of the U of I’s Research Park in 2010 and 2011, respectively. ATSP Innovations develops, produces and commercializes new resins, and Serionix produces high-performance filtration materials.

“Jim embodied what it means to be a Grainger engineer,” said Rashid Bashir, dean of The Grainger College of Engineering. “His commitment to discovering innovative materials is nothing short of inspirational. Jim was an exemplary leader as MatSE’s first department head. It’s because of his service and generosity dedicating a professorship in his namesake that The Grainger College of Engineering will continue to inspire the next generation of world-changing Grainger engineers.”


Economy is survived by his wife, Anastasia; his four children, Elizabeth (David Wah), Peter, Katherine (Farouc Jaffer) and Melissa (Glenn Mathias); eight grandchildren; two nieces; and two nephews.

Memorials may be made to The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts or the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra.

James Economy is all smiles during the MatSE founding department head’s 90th birthday celebration in April 2019.
James Economy is all smiles during the MatSE founding department head’s 90th birthday celebration in April 2019.

Colleague recollections

John Abelson, professor emeritus

“As department head, Jim was instrumental in organizing the alumni relations effort of the recently formed MatSE department,” Abelson said. “This was foresighted. In just a couple years, when the department needed to construct its undergraduate teaching laboratories, our alumni board agreed to spearhead a fundraising effort. At the first meeting, one member put a check for $10,000 on the table and said ‘I am launching this campaign.’”

“Without their efforts, we would never have been able to afford the world-class facility that benefits our students,” Abelson added. “If I recall correctly, the polymer lab alone cost $150,000 in the dollars of the time. Jim also launched the course in laboratory safety (i.e., I agreed to create and teach it). It was widely recognized as important, and (it) is now required for all engineering graduate students who do laboratory work.”

Carl Altstetter, professor emeritus

“Jim was recruited as department head in the late ‘80s following the merger of the Ceramics and the Metallurgy departments,” Altstetter said. “Almost all of Jim's predecessors were from academe or national labs. With Jim's background in industrial labs, a new era had begun.”

“It was not without some rancor,” Altstetter added. “The faculty devoted to science did not easily accept a more industrial orientation, but faculty members began to think about starting their own companies, with Jim as their exemplar.”

“Jim was a whirlwind,” Alstetter said. “Not only was he a master of his professional field and widely recognized as such, he (also) had broad name recognition and friends in university and industry worldwide.”

“Outside of work, he was a tough guy to beat on the handball court,” Alstetter added. “He was also fond of music as an excellent pianist and as a frequent attendee at concerts. He and Stacy should have had name tags on their seats — fifth row, left aisle in Krannert Center's Foellinger Great Hall.”

“Personally, and throughout the world, life has been diminished by his passing,” Alstetter said.

Paul Braun, professor, Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering and director of the Materials Research Laboratory

“Jim hired me, and I still remember our first meeting where we discussed my offer,” Braun said. “What he was really interested in talking about at that meeting, however, were the projects I had proposed during my interview. It was completely clear what he really cared the most about was how technology could change the world.”

“His ability to pick the most important problems facing the world to study was second to none,” Braun added, “and I always enjoyed hearing him talk about his latest projects and ideas.”

Matt Goodman, lecturer

“I first experienced Jim, then known to me as professor Economy, during my graduate studies,” Goodman said. “He taught my graduate-level polymer synthesis course as well as led the questions in the corresponding qualifying exam. I quickly recognized that Jim's vast experience was an excellent advantage, supplementing the course material.”

“His passion for the material was inspiring, and it drove me in my studies,” Goodman added. “He cared deeply about his students, his work and new challenges that presented themselves.”

Angus Rockett, professor emeritus

“Jim Economy came to us from one of the premier research laboratories of the time at IBM, and (he) clearly was a top scientist in polymers and polymer chemistry,” Rockett said. “As a result of his background, he had a strong practical bent to his work. This contrasted with the most common flavor of MatSE, which was very science oriented.”

“Jim was department head during my time as an assistant professor. He encouraged me to develop my research program and emphasized the importance of giving invited talks outside of UIUC for my professional development,” Rockett said. “He talked about his approach to research and how he had been successful. Clearly, he expected a lot from both the faculty and his graduate students.”

“Of course, one of the things that stood out was his wife Stacey,” Rockett added. “Jim was quiet while Stacey is enthusiastic. Jim was reserved while Stacey is outgoing. They were both great people to have associated with the department and both provided inspiration in their own ways.”

Charles Schroeder, James Economy Professor

“Unfortunately, I don't have any first-hand recollections about James Economy, but I am truly honored to be the first James Economy Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Illinois,” Schroeder said. “I'm deeply honored by this recognition given professor Economy's staggering contributions to the field of polymer science and engineering.”

Ken Schweizer, Morris Professor

“I met Jim 31 years ago when he hired me into the new MSE department,” Schweizer said. “My overarching memories of Jim are his commitment to excellence in both research and education, his passion for developing materials solutions for important engineering and societal problems, and his personal warmth.”

Jian-Min Zuo, Ivan Racheff Professor

“I was the last faculty that Jim hired into department,” Zuo said. “Jim was always generous with his advice, (which) was tremendously helpful to me as I started my career.”