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In memoriam: FFRF says goodbye to remarkable scientist and member Bob West

Robert West

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is sad to report the death of Robert (Bob) Culbertson West, Jr., of Madison, Wis., on Oct. 12 at the age of 94, who had been a member of FFRF for more than 40 years. He was born March 18, 1928.

He is survived by his (female) partner, Petey Young of Vancouver, BC; and his two sons: David West of Madison, and Arthur West of Olympia, Wash.; and many other people who love and adore him.

First and foremost a scientist, Bob’s professional career began in a metallurgy laboratory for the Manhattan Project in New Jersey. Quickly discerning what the goal of the entire project was, he extricated himself immediately. Bob pursued his Ph.D. in chemistry at Harvard University and had a successful career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he became the Eugene G. Rochow Professor of Chemistry and director of the Organosilicon Research Center. 

Bob and his research group discovered that silicon atoms are capable of forming bottleable compounds with silicon-silicon double bonds, similar to carbon-carbon double bonds in olefins, an extraordinary breakthrough that provided pathways to novel chemical structures that hadn’t previously been accessible or even imagined.

In addition to his academic research, he co-founded a company, Silatronix, to pursue practical applications of his groundbreaking work in silicon chemistry for the improvement of today’s lithium batteries. His many achievements earned him countless invitations to present his research, in particular in Europe and Far-East Asian countries; top citations in his field; several nominations for a Nobel Prize and many other honors.

Bob was also ahead of time in human rights, foremost gender equality. He was a staunch feminist. When he first arrived at UW-Madison, women were so severely underrepresented in chemistry and physics that entire floors in those buildings didn’t even have women’s restrooms. Bob helped change that. For example, he quietly went through stacks of graduate school applications before admissions committees got to them, in order to identify outstanding female applicants whose applications might otherwise have been rejected. Many of these women went on to become successful scientists and educators with long and productive careers of their own.

Bob also applied his feminist worldview to politics. In the 1960s and 1970s, he became an activist and political supporter of women’s reproductive health and the right to safe abortions. In 1972, he co-founded the Women’s Medical Fund with his first wife Peggy West, and FFRF’s principal founder, Anne Nicol Gaylor, to help Wisconsin women pay for abortions. He continued to support these causes financially for the rest of his life.

“Bob not only co-founded the Women’s Medical Fund and served on the board, but his incredibly generous contributions helped countless Wisconsin women and pregnant persons choose their own futures for decades,” recalls Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president and a former longtime board member of the fund.

Bob was also a fearless adventurer. He was one of those people who was not content merely to summit nearly impossible mountains; he preferred to conquer mountains that no one had ever climbed before. He claimed 60 first ascents, primarily in the Selkirk Mountains in British Columbia. Bob also loved to fly and was inspired to obtain a pilot’s license and a small plane as one way of creating even more adventures. Bob’s partner Petey was at his side on many of his adventures throughout his life — in the mountains, in the air, and overseas. They were avid travelers, visiting every continent and dozens of offbeat corners of the world together, where they accumulated many eccentric artifacts and delightful stories. (For instance, if you were lucky, you might have spied Bob wearing women’s pantyhose under his bathing suit while snorkeling, so that he could snorkel to his heart’s content without risking sunburn. Bob was many things, but he wasn’t vain.) 

Bob joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation almost as early as it was founded back in the late 1970s, and remained a steadfast supporter, becoming a Lifetime Member in 2016.

In lieu of flowers, his family suggests continuing Bob’s legacy of supporting women’s reproductive rights, including Women’s Medical Fund of Wisconsin.