Otto Theodor (Ted) Benfey

BenfeyOtto Theodor (Ted) Benfey, 98, peacefully, on January 24, 2024, at Friends Homes at Guilford, a Quaker-affiliated life plan community in Greensboro, N.C. Ted was born on October 31, 1925, the elder son of Eduard Benfey, chief justice of the German Supreme Court of Economic Arbitration, and Lotte Maria Fleischmann Benfey in Berlin, Germany.

With the rise of Nazism, Ted’s parents, both of whom were assimilated Jews, sent him to England at age ten to live with close friends of the family. With his foster brother, Wolf, he attended Watford Grammar School before earning his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees (the latter at the age of 20) at University College London under the supervision of the British Nobel Prize-winner Christopher Kelk Ingold. Shocked by the bombing of Hiroshima and the weaponizing of scientific research, Ted became a Quaker in 1946.

Ted was a distinguished professor of organic chemistry, a highly respected historian of science, and a valued guide to generations of students, friends, and colleagues. A pillar in the Guilford College community and a founder of Friendship Meeting in Greensboro, he was the beloved companion of his wife, Rachel Thomas Benfey, for 64 years.

Ted’s parents received U.S. visas with the help of Lotte’s sister. In December 1946, Ted moved to the United States for research at Columbia University in New York; and for 40 years, 1948–1988, he taught at the Quaker colleges of Haverford, Earlham, and Guilford, retiring as the Dana Professor of Chemistry and History of Science, Emeritus.

At Haverford in 1949, he married the artist and teacher Rachel Elizabeth Thomas, a Guilford College graduate who later founded the preschool A Child’s Garden, now a part of New Garden Friends School in Greensboro. That same year, he attended, at Haverford, the first meeting of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science, dedicated to peaceful uses of science, and became its second president in 1951.

At Earlham he assisted in the creation of the national high school curriculum the Chemical Bond Approach, which sought to move the teaching of chemistry away from rote memorization to the experience of how chemical research is actually conducted. From 1963 to 1978, he was founding editor of the American Chemical Society’s high school magazine Chemistry, in which he published, in 1964, his famous spiral design of the periodic table.

Ted was a Fulbright-Hays Research Fellow at Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya, Japan, studying the origins of Asian science and mathematics. He was also a visiting scholar in Israel, and lectured in Brazil, Chile, Hungary, and Ireland. In 2016, the American Chemical Society hosted a symposium in honor of his ninetieth birthday; in 2019 he was given the ACS’s HIST Award for Outstanding Achievement in the History of Chemistry.

After retiring from teaching, Ted and Rachel moved to Philadelphia, Pa., where he was named editor of publications at the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, now part of the Science History Institute. He was founding editor of the Chemical Heritage Magazine and adjunct professor of history of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ted and Rachel moved to Friends Homes in 1996 and resumed their membership in Friendship Meeting. He compiled four volumes of The Experience of War: Residents of Friends Homes Tell Their Stories. Ted and Rachel were among the founders of Greensboro’s hospice program, and they both died under its care.

Ted was predeceased by his wife, Rachel Thomas Benfey, in 2013; and a son, Philip Benfey, in 2023. He is survived by three children, Stephen Benfey (Kikue Kotani), Christopher Benfey (Mickey Rathbun), and Karen Boyd (Bobby); one daughter-in-law, Elisabeth Benfey; eight grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and a sister, Renate Wilkins.

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