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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

ChBE alumnus and MRI pioneer Walt Robb dies

Illinois alumnus Walt Robb, PhD ’51, a retired executive with GE who led the company’s medical technology business, passed away of COVID-19 on March 23, 2020, in Schenectady, NY. He was 92 years old.

At the U of I, Robb studied under Professor Harry Drickamer and earned his Ph.D. in three years, in 1951. He joined GE after graduating from Illinois and had a long career with the company. As the CT scanning revolution got underway and MRI technology took off, Robb oversaw GE’s struggling medical imaging business, expanding it from a break-even, $100 million business to a highly profitable and growing enterprise. He recruited fellow Illinois ChemE alumnus Jack Welch and the two would work together for decades. In 1993, President Bill Clinton presented Robb with a National Medal of Technology and Innovation for his foresight and leadership in the MRI and CT imaging industry.

Illinois alumnus Walt Robb at a book signing in Roger Adams Laboratory in Urbana.
Walt Robb, PhD ’51, signs copies of his book for students in Roger Adams Lab in 2015.

Robb’s last visit to the Illinois campus was in 2015, when he met with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff, and toured labs. The department hosted a book signing and reception for Robb, who wrote about his life and career in the book, “Taking Risks: Getting Ahead in Business and Life.” During that visit, Robb spoke about how Drickamer constantly challenged him and other students. He recalled working 72 hours a week on his thesis and doing whatever it took to gather the data, including sleeping on a cot in the lab.

Robb retired from GE in 1993 and established Vantage Management. He served on the boards of several companies and also owned two professional sports teams in New York. Robb and his wife, Anne, were great supporters of higher education institutions, including the University of Illinois and Penn State, his undergraduate alma mater. He also established a camp in New York for children with life-threatening illnesses.

Robb is a recipient of the University of Illinois Alumni Achievement Award and the President’s Medallion. He also is a recipient of a 2019 Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Distinguished Alumni Award.

Post-Star article

Wall Street Journal obituary

Daily Gazette article

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