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RTI Stories

How an award from the Dreyfus Foundation set RTI on the road to success

“A laboratory in the middle of a campus that did not exist”

Jean Tennyson Dreyfus Boissevain, operatic soprano and president of the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, visited the rolling pinelands of the Research Triangle Institute on September 17, 1959. Convinced that RTI could be a world-class scientific institute if it had the right support, she approved a $2.5 million grant in the name of her late husband Camille Dreyfus, founder and chairman of the Celanese Corporation of America. (In 2018 dollars, that same grant would be worth about $20 million.)

The Celanese grant provided $500,000 for a building, $200,000 for scientific equipment, and $1.8 million to support a ten-year program of fundamental research in polymer physics and chemistry. Completed on November 10, 1961, the Camille Dreyfus Laboratory was the first of its kind: the only laboratory in America dedicated solely to research in polymers, the chemical compounds that make up plastics. The Dreyfus grant's impact on RTI wasn't solely monetary–it represented Dreyfus's endorsement of and faith in RTI, and helped to attract scientists and businessmen across the nation to the newly formed Institute.

Twenty-five years later, RTI's first president, George R. Herbert, wrote a letter to Boessevain, thanking her for the grant that, he said, "more than any other single event, assured [RTI's] success:

"I still have vivid memories of your 1959 visit, when the then-new Research Triangle Institute could be described only as embryonic, and the research park that was to grow around us was nothing but empty pine land from the window beside my desk. I can see the small hillside where we stood while I pointed out the site on which we proposed to build the laboratory in the middle of a campus that did not exist. With the passing of time, my admiration for your confidence in us has grown to almost a sense of awe."

Following the death of Camille Dreyfus in 1956, Jean Dreyfus Boessevain served as president of the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation and was an active supporter of numerous causes. She passed away in 1991, in Switzerland, at the age of 86. The Camille Dreyfus laboratory was demolished in 2011, but the memory of its patron persists in the Camille Dreyfus Auditorium on the RTI campus.