Dr. Doug Neckers
Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Dr. Douglas C. Neckers, an internationally known scientist who helped create the field of photochemistry, brought many superb international students to America and who was also intensely concerned with the relationship of science to society, died at age 84 of cardiac arrest Nov. 22, 2022.
Though he may have had a heart attack, in a very real sense Doug Neckers’ heart never gave out. He mentored more students than anyone could count, and attracted a large number of international chemistry students to Bowling Green State University. Many of these went on to earn doctorates through the pioneering and innovative program he founded in 1985, the Center for Photochemical Sciences.
He was especially proud of the great many students he recruited from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe after the collapse of European communism. Nearly all of them remained in America after earning their doctorates, and many went on to found and lead businesses that have created hundreds, if not thousands of jobs.
Though Dr. Neckers worked at other institutions, including Harvard University, and did two research fellowships in The Netherlands, at the University of Nijmegen in 1975 and at the University of Groningen in 1968-69, he spent the bulk of his career at Bowling Green State University. A 2012 article in BGSU Magazine noted that while he called himself “an inventor and an entrepreneur,” it added “there are many more adjectives that could just as aptly describe him -- businessman, leader, public intellectual, change agent and musician -- but perhaps ‘Renaissance man’ describes him best.”
That he was indeed, as well as a superb scientist, researcher, teacher and administrator, who took over the leadership of BGSU’s sleepy chemistry department in 1974, and energized it, creating in the process the Center for Photochemical Sciences and winning from the state the right to grant doctorates in the new science.
But while he was known at numerous colleges and universities as a superb teacher, he was also a stunningly successful researcher who held more than 60 patents, either on his own or in collaboration with other inventors. He was involved in the creation of 3D printing, which has evolved into an essential tool. Such was Dr. Neckers’ knowledge that for years, he was frequently sought as a consultant, as well as an expert witness in patent trials and others involving his areas of expertise.
In 2016, Doug Neckers became one of only two Americans ever to receive Germany’s prestigious Forster Prize for chemistry. He responded by giving his “students and colleagues” credit for his success. Michael Woods, the distinguished science editor of the Toledo Blade, said in nominating Doug Neckers for an American Chemical Society award that he played a role “highly unusual if not unique” in teaching both the general public and the news media about the importance, nature and benefits of chemistry.
After decades in academia Dr. Neckers also became a businessman, founding Spectra Group, now Spectra Polymers, today run by Alex Mejiritski, one of the former students he recruited, in this case from Ukraine. The firm uses photochemical processes and 3D printing to make various products, including some critically important medical supplies produced during the pandemic.
That would be more than enough for most lifetimes -- but that is just a fraction of what Dr. Neckers accomplished. During the 1960s, he took a leading role in bringing controversial and important speakers from John Hope Franklin to Dick Gregory to the campus of small, conservative Hope College, the school where he had been an undergraduate and where he first taught.
While he was a very accomplished scientist, he was also deeply interested in history and society, so much so that in 2016 he would become chair of the board of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y., a place devoted to the career of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who was also the head U.S. prosecutor for the Nazi war crimes trials in Nuremberg, Germany.
When she learned of Doug Neckers’ passing, Kristan McMahon, the center’s current president, gave him credit for increasing the Jackson’s Center’s endowment funds as chair, and added “he was interested in the work of the Center because he was disturbed that German organic chemists contributed so heavily to the atrocities of the Holocaust.
He was deeply interested in government and the U.S. Constitution and how history could instruct us and provide paths forward.”
That he was indeed. In recent years, Dr. Neckers had begun writing a popular newspaper column for first the Toledo Blade and then other newspapers, a column that sought to explain issues in science and called on our politicians to be more rational and responsible. He wrote a number of books in his field, and was hard at work on several more, including a forthcoming collection of his columns, A Scientist Looks at Society in the Age of Covid
None of this would have seemed likely on Aug. 15, 1938, when Douglas Carlyle Neckers was born to M. Carlyle Neckers and Doris VanLente Neckers, who lived in the small town of Clymer, in southwestern New York State, not far from the Pennsylvania border. The Neckers family had settled there with other Dutch Reformed Church immigrants nearly a century before. His mother’s family, also Dutch, had settled in Holland, Michigan, where Doug would eventually attend, graduate and later teach at Hope College, which was also affiliated with the church. Doug Neckers had what many would consider a typical small-town boyhood, during which he worked in the family department store, played football and basketball and became an Eagle Scout. However, he was inspired at an early age by his “Uncle Jim,” Dr. James Neckers, an organic chemist for many years at the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, and that relationship helped determine his life’s work.
Doug Neckers’ family began attending lectures and concerts at the nearby and prestigious Chautauqua Institution from the time gas ceased to be rationed after World War II. Doug was an avid Chautauquan till the end of his life, attending lectures and concerts nearly every year.
Nor did he ever stop continuing to grow intellectually. During the last summer of his life, he gave a lecture at Chautauqua there on a relatively recent interest of his -- crusading editor turned politician Horace Greeley, who was also from Clymer.
In fact, Doug never really left his birthplace – “I have never been able to get Clymer out of my system,” he said. Wherever else he lived, a big part of his heart was always there, and in nearby Bemus Point, his wife’s home town. He had been just 18 when he met Suzanne “Sue” Evans, who was just 11 days younger, and as he later said, “my courting life was over. We were pretty much a perfect fit.”
They were to remain married until her death in June 2021, just one day before what would have been their 61st wedding anniversary. They restored a cottage they had in Bemus Point, and no matter where they lived, they always managed to spend time every year at the cottage and in their beloved southwestern New York.
Though both started college elsewhere, they soon transferred to Hope College in Holland, where Sue majored in history and became a teacher, and Doug majored in chemistry. They married immediately after graduation, and moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he earned a Ph.D in chemistry and then did post-doctoral work at Harvard University while Sue taught.
Later, they returned to Hope College where Doug began his academic career and they started a family, adopting an infant girl named Pam in 1967 and a son named Andy two years later. They became an extremely close-knit family, traveling together across the country and around the world, Though he had made an amazing impact on Hope College, Doug Neckers wanted to work at an institution that could grant Ph.Ds. So in 1971, they moved to the University of New Mexico, where they became avid golfers, and then on to BGSU, where Doug arrived as department chair in 1974, with a clear mission to improve the chemistry program; to say he succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations might be a considerable understatement.
But besides science and history, music was also always a constant in Doug Neckers’ life, beginning when he would sing “Remember Pearl Harbor” at war bond rallies when he was three years old. The Neckers both sang in local church choirs, including those at Collingwood Presbyterian Church and Trinity Episcopal before they decided in the late 1990s to help incorporate a group they sang with as The Canterbury Singers of Toledo. For nearly twenty years, they made many trips and sang in virtually all the great churches and cathedrals in England.
Later, Doug and Sue joined St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Perrysburg and created another series, St. Tim’s Discovers, where he was an active participant for a decade before the pandemic.
Doug Neckers was predeceased by his parents and his youngest brother Craig.
He is survived by his brother, Bruce, of Grand Rapids, MI, his wife, Susie, and his sister-in- law, Craig’s widow Joan Hendricks Neckers. He is also survived by his daughter, Pamela Neckers, a Columbus-based freelancer, and son Dr. Andrew Carlyle Neckers, a diagnostic radiologist, also of Columbus; his wife Courtney Werner Neckers, and granddaughters, Elise and Isabel, who spent many happy hours with their grandfather as he delighted in trying to kindle their interest in science, music and history.
A memorial service has yet to be scheduled. Dr. Neckers’ ashes are being interred with those of his wife in Bemus Point Cemetery, NY. The family suggests that anyone who wishes to honor his memory consider a contribution to the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, the Suzanne and Douglas Neckers fund at Hope College, or the Albert Neckers, Jr. Endowment at the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, NY.
The family would like to express their heartfelt thanks to Theresa Gosnell for her years of friendship, help and care for both their parents. They would also like to acknowledge Jack Lessenberry’s extensive work as Doug’s literary collaborator and editor in recent years; he also had the sad duty of crafting this obituary.
Additionally, his friends and family and a group of scientists are asking BGSU to rename the school’s natural sciences building The Douglas C. Neckers Physical Sciences Building, to recognize his immense contributions to the university and to chemistry.