Lâle Burk’s interests—and her presence—have enriched the lives of colleagues and students in practically every corner of the College for over 50 years: in chemistry, the botanic gardens, the history of science, music, the Mortimer Rare Book Room, the Kahn Institute, First-Year seminars, Turkish language, history and culture, the list goes on. Kate Queeney calls Lâle “chemistry’s ambassador to the College and quickly adds – and she’s an ambassador for the College.”
Lâle Burk (known then as Lâle Aka) came to Northampton via Ankara and Istanbul in 1962 to work as a Teaching Fellow for Milton Soffer. She had just finished her studies at the American College in Istanbul and came to Smith to complete an M.A. in chemistry followed by a PhD at UMass under the “four college cooperative program” in 1969. The work she did for her doctoral dissertation was at Smith so we can honestly claim her as a double alumna. One of her awe-struck young chemistry colleagues told me the other day that he thought it was amazing that Lâle has taught in three successive chemistry buildings at Smith: Stoddard, Sabin-Reed and Ford. No one else currently at Smith can say the same. True, she didn’t teach in Lilly, the original science building, but chemistry moved to the brand new Chemistry Hall in 1898, later to be named Stoddard Hall.
Lâle is the elder in the department, but she is an active researcher and versatile teacher. A few years ago, chemistry was at a turning point in the way that chemistry abstracts would be disseminated: hard copy or on-line. Everyone knew how carefully Lâle consulted abstracts and the pleasure she took in serendipitous discoveries that would occur much like walking through stacks in the library and happening across a title you weren’t looking for. Preparing for a department meeting where they wanted to argue for a switch to on-line access only, some junior colleagues were worried about reluctant senior colleagues and especially about offending Lâle. To their surprise, Lâle was the first person in the department to speak in favor of on-line abstracts. She had spent several days comparing hard copy and on-line abstracts and concluded that the on-line worked beautifully and she saw no reason why they shouldn’t switch over entirely.
Most of us know Lâle as a very sweet person, but also as very persistent. I learned recently that Lâle favors steam distillation to separate compounds in her lab. Ford Hall was built to accommodate steam distillation, but when the faculty was ready to move into their labs, Lâle discovered that hers was not piped for steam distillation. She was not amused, she was, in fact, steamed. Before long her lab was properly piped. A phrase that is used affectionately – but knowingly – in the chemistry department is: “don’t cross the Turk.”
Lâle is always interested in thinking about new ways of teaching and in exploring a wide range of interests. In her First-Year Seminar, “Sense and Essence in Nature,” students learn about fragrant plants from scientific, economic and cultural points of view. The chemistry, botany and bioactivities of plants provide a scientific foundation for the course but students also learn about the representation of the plants in literature and in art. By the end of the semester Lâle introduces the new students to the Smith College Botanic Gardens, the Rare Book Room, the Art Museum and the Science Center facilities.
Lâle has collaborated with colleagues and with students as co-author for articles in chemistry. But she has also contributed an article on absinthe to a volume on historical perspectives on addiction edited by Doug Patey; an article on exile to a volume edited by Peter Rose, an article on the history of chemistry for the Turkish Chemical Society. She was the organizing fellow for a Kahn Institute project on Music and Science: From The Creation to The Origin. Last month the Classics department sponsored a lecture by Kathleen Lynch in honor of Lâle’s retirement called “Greeks Bearing Gifts: Athenian Potters and their Anatolian Customers.”
The most recent example of her extensive interests – and of her persistence – is the exhibit in Ford Hall in honor of her retirement called The Chemist in the Garden: Origins of Natural Products. Only for Lâle would Martin Antonetti allow books from the Mortimer Rare Book Room to leave Neilson and go to Ford. Curated by Signe Dahlberg-Wright, ’14, it will be up until May 27. The exhibit is an eloquent statement about Lâle’s extraordinary intellectual range: history, art, science and literature combine in ancient illustrations and text. You can learn about the medicinal properties of lobelia, catnip, poppies, the tooth-ache tree and see early illustrations of steam distillation.
Both John and Lâle Burk have been part of the fabric of campus life for many, many years. Their home on Crescent Street is almost an extension of the campus. A colleague told me that her daughter has a special fondness for the sugar cubes Lâle serves with tea.
On a personal note—
For many years I have clocked my morning drive to the campus from Williamsburg by noting where John and Lâle are along their daily walk from Crescent St. to campus. I hope I will continue to see their profiles every morning for a long time. And, Lâle, I hope you will teach your First-Year Seminar again soon.
Now let’s all raise a glass to toast our beloved colleague, Lâle Burk.