Basil C. Doumas
Class of 1954, BS; Class of 1955, MS; Class of 1960, Ph.D.
Basil C. “Bill” Doumas spent much of his youth in his family’s basement with a chemistry set, “mixing this and that” and “stinking up” the house, much to his parents chagrin. But his childhood inquisitiveness set the stage for a 34-year career with The Dow Chemical Company and a Presidency of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).
Doumas, the son of a Greek immigrant who owned a restaurant in Fredericksburg, Virginia, became a Virginia Tech Hokie in 1950 at the early age of 16 years and nine months. His youthful start was because his school system in Fredericksburg operated on an 11-year cycle without the eighth grade. So the youngster had an immediate wake-up call about the demands of college academics when he arrived at VPI, as it was then called, as a member of the ROTC.
“I had to figure very quickly how to effectively and efficiently use my time. ROTC provided me with good discipline that I did not have in high school, but I had no burning desire to remain in the military,” he recalls. So, after two years, he joined the ranks of the civilian student body.
Like most chemical engineering (ChE) juniors, he remembers the experience of the Unit Operations lab as the most grueling, with many sleepless nights dedicated to report writing after a full day of conducting experiments with a team of peers. And during his senior year in 1954, when all ChE students were required to write a thesis to complete work for the undergraduate degree, he found himself doing a literature search, conducting experimental work and, finally, writing up the thesis. “I found the idea of research challenging and satisfying,” Doumas adds.
So, following his graduation in a group of only 17 ChE classmates, Doumas decided to remain at Virginia Tech for a graduate degree. He was spurred on in his decision by recruiters who told him he was “too young” at 20+ for a career position in ChE. He dual-registered in the spring quarter of his senior year for graduate classes, and had no trouble completing the master’s degree for his second diploma in 1955.
Advised by Professor Nelson F. Murphy, and supported by his parents and a Virginia Engineering Experiment Station Fellowship of $100 a month, he worked on a process to prepare lead chromate (a yellow pigment) using different forms of electrical current. Afterwards, Doumas’ adviser wrote two papers on the innovative approaches of his young researcher.
So, at 21, he was now considered old enough to get a job, and he spent the next two years at the National Lead Company of Ohio, a government contractor that operated a uranium processing plant. Doumas worked in a group whose responsibility it was to develop processes to recover uranium from scrap materials. They worked with scrap materials produced in other processing systems at the refinery. The recovered uranium was recycled to a subsequent process at the plant site, thereby keeping the valuable uranium in the production stream.
Throughout his time in Ohio, Doumas remained in contact with Murphy, and after two years, decided to return to Virginia Tech to obtain his doctorate. He was now traveling in threes, bringing his wife, Ann, and their first born, Mark. Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation provided the young husband with a two-year scholarship at $2,000 a year. Ann, a biologist, worked in Virginia Tech’s Agriculture College until she gave birth in 1959 to their first daughter, Jennifer. When the couple found a local family to take care of their children, Ann returned to work until her husband earned his last sheepskin in 1960.
The family decided to move to Lake Jackson, Texas, where Doumas started his three-plus decade career with The Dow Chemical Company located in Freeport, Texas. He held various management and technical positions, including: technical manager of Styrene Monomers Technology Center, Freeport, Texas; manager of manufacturing and engineering for Dow Chemical Japan Limited in Tokyo, Japan; and an assignment on a new styrene project in Caracas, Venezuela.
By the 1970s, Doumas was monitoring Dow Chemical’s 11 styrene manufacturing sites around the world. The Styrene Technology Center surveyed and reviewed what the individual plants did to enhance productivity. Then, every 18 months, a conference was hosted at the Freeport Technology Center where ideas were shared for the improvement of operations in the worldwide units. “We cross-fertilized ideas across the international plants,” Doumas explains. “This was my most rewarding work, seeing various improvements in plant design and plant operations. To implement a plant improvement from Holland or Australia, for example, and cross pollinate with another plant was exciting.”
In 1979, Doumas took a Dow position in Tokyo. “That was a great assignment,” he smiles. The company in Japan operated with a Western style of management. He did not find the cultural differences to be a problem even though most of the employees in his group were Japanese. Ann and their second daughter, Beth, spent the three years with him, with Ann working as a substitute teacher in the international school where Beth attended.
After a little more than three years, the Doumas family returned to Texas, and Bill continued to work in the area of styrene monomers technology. Eventually, he took an assignment with Dow Chemical in Venezuela to help build a new styrene plant. Dow Chemical was leading the joint project, cooperating with private venture capital in Venezuela and petroleum investments by the government. Disagreement among the partners saw the project collapse and Bill and Ann returned to Freeport in 1992 after two years in South America. He remained with Dow for another two years until his retirement in 1994.
Throughout his career with Dow, Doumas was active in the AIChE, culminating in his presidency of the institute in 1996. Even though he was retired, Dow Chemical continued to support him in his travels as president and as past president in 1997. In 2005, AIChE presented its F.J. and Dorothy Van Antwerpen Award for service to the institute to Doumas for his outstanding contributions to the chemical engineering profession. Dow Chemical sponsors this award.
His retirement also brought him back to his roots, returning to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to live in 1995. And the opportunity also arose for him to become active with the Virginia Tech ChE Department Advisory Board. When he returned for a ChE department alumni reunion, he met former ChE Department Head Bill Conger. Soon after, Conger asked him if he would become a member of the department advisory board. As with any good volunteer, he was almost immediately propelled into the chairmanship of the board, and has remained in this position for several years. He has found it “challenging” as he has now worked with three ChE department heads, and he has a huge goal for the future: to see the ChE department have an up-to-date teaching and research facility since the Randolph Hall facility, nearly 50 years old, has outlived its usefulness.
Class of: 1954, 1955, 1960
Year Inducted into Academy: 2006